New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Month: October, 2011

Vacationer Trips Out at the Knit

No grouches allowed – show up at a Vacationer show with a scowl and leave with a grin. Despite an early afternoon Knitting Factory showtime (this was CMJ) and a short set marred by some technical glitches, the electro-soul band were impossible to resist. A purist would say that they ought to replace the tinny retro 80s synth patches with a Hammond organ (or a Nord Electro, which sounds just like one) and maybe get a conga player instead of all the percussion that was on the laptop under one of the synths. But then they’d be an oldschool soul band – and a good one, because they have the tunes – although they wouldn’t be nearly as trippy, which is what makes them different, and interesting. It doesn’t seem that they make music for sober people.

Both the drummer and keyboardist had syndrums, sometimes hitting a boomy “thud” on the beat, sometimes adding a weird spacy vibe to the mix. The keyboardist swung expertly between synth, organ patches, syndrum loops and also played smart, hypnotically echoey vibraphone on a couple of tracks against the loud, trebly, melodic bass and terse, jangly guitar low in the mix. The bassist sang with a laid-back soul falsetto, all the way through from their happy, backbeat-driven opener to the last tune, which mixed a warm post-Velvets pop ambience with a blithe calypso hook, the synths rising full blast as they took it out with a big rush of string textures. In between, there was another one that began totally retro 80s with a New Order-ish verse before the catchy, bouncy Motown chorus kicked in. They started one song with a doo-wop hook and then added chimy synth and vibes: it was like a laid-back Chin Chin tune without the vocoder or the horns. One song simply titled Trip put the trip in trip-hop, alternating swirling and chirpy textures over a hypnotically swaying groove. Say what you want about this band’s techy sound, but you can’t say they’re not original, or not fun, or a bad choice if you feel like smoking up beforehand.

Casiokids were scheduled to play afterward, but it’s a good bet that every trendoid Bushwick blogger was on his way and will have primitive phone video to prove it, so there was really no need to stick around. Google it tomorrow or beginning of the week and see what you missed.

Vlada Tomova’s Balkan Tales: Amazing Album

This isn’t safe, sanitized folk music: Vlada Tomova’s new album Balkan Tales has a raw, dangerous edge. Anyone who loves the otherworldly tonalities and dark, ominous chromatics of Bulgarian, Balkan and Middle Eastern music will love this – it’s a rich, intense treat, all the way through. The Bulgarian-born singer varies her vocals depending on the lyric, from low and apprehensive, to brassy and plaintively gritty, to absolutely joyous, with the occasional big “wheeeeeee!” at the end of a phrase. Good singers tend to be magnets for good musicians, and Tomova is no exception. While the album’s instrumentation varies widely from song to song, most of them are built around the terse, stately acoustic guitar work of Kyle Senna and bass provided by either Danny Zanker or Sage Reynolds. Oud genius Mavrothi Kontanis adds an especially suspenseful edge on a couple of tracks, including one deliciously low, mysterious solo. The rest of the crew – Uri Sharlin on accordion, Alicia Svigals on violin, Sarah Bowman on cello and Matthias Kunzli on echoey, boomy percussion – shift confidently among the diverse emotions Tomova evokes.

The songs are a mix of traditional material along with some more recent songs whose composers’ identities have not been lost. Senna lights up the second track with a graceful yet biting, chromatically-charged solo: hearing it on a guitar instead of, say, an oud or bouzouki, adds an unusual and interesting texture to the mix. A big ballad by Lubo Alexandrov is gorgeously dark, slow and slinky, with wounded vocals; another by Niko Papaxoglu gets a spare, ghostly, haunted treatment. But Tomova quickly flips the script, following with a wry, trickly rhythmic, irresistibly crescendoing dance tune. One song has a rustic sway much like an Appalachian ballad – before the rhythm shifts and there’s no doubt that it hails from Eastern Europe. Another takes a creepy, two-chord pulse with spiraling wood flute and adds a bit of an acoustic rock edge. Avishai Cohen’s apprehensive muted trumpet imbues one of the later tracks with a pensive, late 60s psychedelic folk-rock feel. The album closes with a suspenseful Kurdish song that works its way from seems like a casual, improvisational intro to a fiery, methodically accelerating, accordion-fueled gallop. Tomova plays Symphony Space this Sunday, Oct 23 at 7 opening for Macedonian wood flute virtuoso Theodosii Spassov; tix are $30 and worth it.

Taiwan Takes Over Dominion

Colossal Musical Joke has come full circle. What started out thirty years ago as a bunch of bands playing for college radio disc jockeys has reverted to exactly that, which is probably a good thing. This year’s CMJ has been the smallest in memory – at least since the early 90s – but as usual, there were a handful of tantalizing shows hidden amidst the rubbish. One particularly good one was Wednesday night at Dominion, sponsored by the Taiwanese arts ministry. Odds are that only one of the three bands on the bill stands much of a chance of reaching any kind of substantial US audience, since native-born, English-speaking Americans tend to be xenophobes when it comes to music sung in unfamiliar languages. But musically speaking, if this show was representative of mainstream rock in Taiwan, it’s a hell of a lot better there than it is here.

Retro guitar pop quartet 1976 opened. While that’s the year that everyone in the band was born, they ought to call themselves 1986 instead. Zac, their guitarist seems to have an encyclopedic knowledge of 80s British bands, from Joy Division to New Order to the Smiths to maybe even the Room or the Mighty Lemon Drops. For the most part, he stuck to a postpunk style that stubbornly resists the urge to find any kind of resolution or play chords straight-up. But he’s not just being wilful or lazy – he threw a couple of completely unexpected Hendrix allusions into the first song, possibly to make a point. Using a clean, effect-free guitar tone, he quoted Joy Division’s Novelty along with Hendrix in the first song, then followed with the catchiest number in the set, which didn’t mess with the 80s, going straight back to the Beatles. Frontman Raykai’s cool, throaty delivery would occasionally rise, giving voice to angst, but then go low and calm again over the skintight, upbeat pulse of the bass and drums. One song had a funky Smiths vibe (Raykai wore that band’s t-shirt); a couple of others had a bouncy post-Motown groove like the late Jam or Style Council. They saved their best song for last, a wickedly catchy juxtaposition of minor-key hopefulness with darker tinges. Having won the Taiwanese equivalent of a Grammy a few years ago, it was no surprise to see them draw the biggest crowd of the night.

All-female art-rock band Bearbabes (熊寶貝樂團) were sensationally good, a real find.They’re the band on the bill who stand the most chance of winning a US audience, if only because frontwoman/bassist Jia-Heng Chang sings in English sometimes, and well. Guitarist Chun Wei swayed and occasionally hurled herself around, completely lost in the music, whether firing off a gritty, distorted postpunk roar, biting garage-rock riffage or pensive jangle while Chang served as a second lead guitarist, switching from dirty fuzztones to watery, retro 80s melody lines. Drummer Meng-Chih Lu handled the occasional counterrhythms or switch to a tricky time signature effortlessly, while cellist Fei-Tsuei Luo added a bracing, classically-tinged edge.

Their songwriting proved to be diverse, and excellent, from the wistfully pastoral dreampop-flavored Year After Year, to the menacing, crescendoing,ornate minor-key art-rock intensity of Not Afraid, to the brief, contemplative folk-pop Firefly. Speaking mostly in her native language, Chang bantered sardonically with the crowd nonstop between songs: she seems to find America and Americans completely surreal, and very amusing. At the end of the show, they brought it down to just guitar and vocals for their big hit Rockable, an unexpectedly poppy, pretty song that Luo – who seems to be quite the ham – interrupted by trying to talk to the crowd in English. “You can find us…on the internet! And buy our cd…where…um, I dunno!” And then Wei hit her distortion pedal, and they totally punked out the song and smashed it to bits.

Echo were last. From an English-speaking perspective, it’s impossible to completely understand this loud, two-guitar band’s music: their lyrics might actually be very good. Their stage presence didn’t offer much evidence of that, from their very first song, where their frontman tried to get the crowd to clap along with an “uh, ah, oh” refrain, arena-rock style, a cliche that strong lyricists have no need to fall back on. The songs followed a tight, efficient format – tense verse into comfortable, anthemic, singalong choruses – that quickly became predictable, right down to the simple, screechy, sneering, glitter-splattered lead guitar. If they’ve got something to say, those melodies are an effective way to get their ideas across. But what was blasting from the stage hinted that they may be more about babes n’ booze than, say, what’s happening in Zucotti Park or its Taiwanese equivalent.

Some Fun Stuff to Download

Today is fun free stuff day. First, here’s allstar indie classical ensemble yMusic’s take on Annie Clark AKA St. Vincent’s Proven Badlands, seven minutes and seventeen seconds of pensive, sweeping melody. Also from the peeps at New Amsterdam Records, here’s itsnotyouitsme (Caleb Burhans and Grey McMurray) doing a characteristic lushly hypnotic dreamscape titled It might be time to leave this place and go mingle with our heroes.

And raising the fun factor even higher, you can spin Tom Hitt’s In the Biblical Sense, a folk song that needed to be written, from the Erie, Pennsylvania songsmith’s latest album Scribe and Jester. For a much, much darker sound, check out Cessna Devotion from Glimpses, his 2010 album of songs based on weird-but-true news stories.

The new Extra Classic album Your Light Like White Lightning, Your Light Like A Laser Beam came out at the end of last month. It’s got a delicious, richly analog flavor, whether on this oldschool soul ballad or on Lee Perry-inspired dub reggae soundscapes. Nice laid-back vox from former Anniversary frontwoman/keyboardist Adrianne Verhoeven.

Last but hardly least here’s percussionist David Shively performing highlights from his half-hour cymbal-and-gong solo on Keeril Makan’s latest album Target. Don’t play this unless you’re fully awake – it’s hypnotic but very intense.

Good Stuff from Alfonzo Velez and King Porter Stomp

Endorsements from other musicians are usually BS: it’s usually some quid-pro-quo thing, pretty much bought and paid for. But when noir piano titan Fernando Otero says something good about somebody, you just have to pay attention and Otero is right: Alfonso Velez is the real deal. He has a couple of tracks up at his bandcamp that sound like The Verve for the heroes down at Ground Zero – in Zucotti Park, that is. It’s a classic mix of accessible anthemic sweep and moody intensity.

Meanwhile, Brighton, UK’s King Porter Stomp are doing a deliciously original mix of oldschool analog Afrobeat, rocksteady and hip-hop. Here’s Let It All Out, a big kick-ass new anthem from an ep scheduled to come out early next year.

Edward Rogers’ Porcelain Hits Hard and Pure

Edward Rogers has made a name for himself as someone who can write expertly in any retro rock style he wants, whether solo or with the artsy, jangly Bedsit Poets. The Birmingham, UK expat’s new album Porcelain is his hardest-rocking effort so far, and not only is it his best, it’s also one of best straight-up rock records of the last couple of years. Maybe it’s because he’s been so closely involved with the Losers Lounge scene, or maybe it’s just because he writes such good songs, but either way he always has an A-list band behind him. This time around the rhythm section features members of Cracker, Nada Surf or Graham Parker’s band, alongside Ian Hunter’s guitarist and a whole slew of other NYC talent. Rogers’ vocals are typically understated: he’ll snarl but he doesn’t usually scream. Rogers looks back fondly, sometimes bitterly; he looks to the future with extreme apprehension. The songs here range from blistering rockers to delicate chamber-pop laments.

The title track takes garage rock snarl, subdues it a little and turns it into insistent, propulsive new wave in the same vein as the Church, at least in that band’s early years, leaving its troubled intensity just below the surface to leap up when least expected. Likewise, the best track on the album, Topping the World, has the same fast 2/4 beat, a forest of burning, psychedelic guitar layers, and lyrics that capture a moment when the banks have repossessed everything, the temperature keeps climbing but still nobody questions the magic of the marketplace. “Chaos rules your destiny,” Rogers reminds over and over as it winds out.

Nothing Too Clever is gentle chamber-pop – it’s Kooks by David Bowie updated for the teens, with a stunning Claudia Chopek orchestral arrangement featuring Tim Dutemple’s oboe and Eleanor Norton on cello. Love with the World, a sarcastic eco-catastrope anthem, goes even more deeply into Thin White Duke territory, with some brightly wry Mick Ronson-esque slide guitar from James Mastro.

The opening track, a reminiscence about a hellraising bar crowd, is Irish-flavored glamrock that wouldn’t be out of place in the Black 47 reel book. Diamond Amour also has an Irish rock vibe and a ridiculously catchy, singalong chorus straight out of the Willie Nile catalog. “The world is changing from grey to black-and-white,” Rogers intones on the pensive ballad Link to the Chain – it’s the personal as political taken to its vividly logical extreme. Separate Walls is like Oasis with a Ph. D., a pummeling rocker with some memorable dueling between Don Fleming’s machete guitar and Chopek’s stiletto violin. Silent Singer also potently features those two contrasting savage/incisive attacks. The album closes with a hallucinatory, nightmarish psychedelic tone poem of sorts, Fleming’s axe-murderer guitar cutting its way through a hellish Lower East Side milieu that bears little resemblance to the once edgy, working-class neighborhood that Rogers has called home for years. “Take the train to Fancyland/My magazine well in hand,” he sneers at the fulltime tourists who’ve transformed his old stomping ground from a fertile incubator for bands into a Bernie Madoff style Florida shopping mall. Other bands – notably the Brooklyn What – have chronicled the destruction of New York by gentrification over the past ten years, few as memorably as Rogers. For people who like a good tune, this album’s a lot of fun – for New Yorkers, it’s also an important piece of history. The album officially releases next month; watch this space for news of the release show, most likely at Bowery Electric.

Good Drinking Music from Bryan Dunn

When’s the last time you heard a really good drinking song? Not some cliched attempt at a drunken singalong, but a real clever, George Jones-worthy one? Bryan Dunn has one. It’s called Flowers. It’s country music, it’s very funny, it rocks pretty hard and there’s a pun midway through that’s worthy of Uncle Leon & the Alibis, that’s how good it is. Grab a free download here.

Old Favorites and New Ones

Last night was all about discovery, and rediscovery. The first was five-piece rock band the Downward Dogs, who ripped through a smart, diverse, energetically jangly set of southwestern-tinged rock at the National Underground. Fronted by an animated guitarist who goes by the name Joe Yoga, the band puts a unique spin on Giant Sand style desert rock via an excellent two-piece horn section (tenor sax and trumpet) with some neat, terse charts by the sax player. Backed by an imaginative, tight drummer and a nimble bassist whose tensely rising, trebly lines enhanced the suspenseful ups and downs of the songs, Yoga led the band through a mix of big swaying anthems and quieter, more brooding material. Every single song in the set was good. The lyrics were intriguing. This being the National Underground, it wasn’t easy to hear them: between the dodgy sound mix and the noisy yuppie puppy crowd who’d come in from Long Island to see the whimpering wimps who played beforehand, it wasn’t easy to hear anything, particularly the pensive, sometimes smoldering sax parts. Random, ominous images cut through the roar: the only thing left standing on 93rd St. (yikes!); someone waiting for something awful to happen; the impossibility of getting away with something, “a couple of years after the war.” A refreshing social awareness made its way to the surface: “I am revolution, and I am dead, but I never felt better,” Yoga hollered sarcastically over the dramatic whoosh of the cymbals at one point. The songs ranged from punchy, syncopated mariachi-flavored rock with swirling trumpet, a couple of warmly bouncy Wallflowers-style soul-rock tunes, a couple of pensively expansive anthems that wouldn’t be out of place in the Oxygen Ponies catalog, and a biting garage rock number to close the set on a high note.

After the Downward Dogs, Tom Clark & the High Action Boys played Lakeside. Clark is an artist in the purest sense of the word. Was he going to wait til eleven to hit the stage like most of the Friday night acts here do? No way. He went on early so he and his tight-beyond-belief four-piece band could take their time and mix a few choice covers into the mix along with some new material and familiar crowd-pleasers. Clark isn’t unknown to an international audience: among New York musicians, he’s universally respected . As one audience member remarked, astonished, he manages to play lickety-split yet soulful lead guitar and sing at the same time, and write excellent songs, with good lyrics. It was good to hear that he’s finally going back into the studio next month for a new album, because the new material is characteristically choice. A lot of the songs were upbeat highway rock tunes, but the band varied the dynamics, breaking one down unexpectedly into an almost reggae interlude. The biggest hits with the crowd were New Toothbrush on Your Sink, with its wickedly catchy Flamin Groovies vibe, and If That’s Country Music, I’d Like to Know What Country It’s From, a viciously spot-on commentary on what gets played on “country” radio these days. In between verses and choruses, Clark spun off one lightning-fast solo after another, switching effortlessly between bluegrass, staccato Buck Owens riffage, blue flame Rolling Stones vamps and incisive janglerock. Lead guitar might be a dying art – for the prissy boys of Bushwick, guitars are decor for fashion shoots – but then again, it was ten years ago when Clark was packing crowds into Manitoba’s to watch his fingers fly. The covers were great, too – Albert Hammond’s It Never Rains in Southern California, with the excellent bassist doing the original riffs note-for-note; a similarly edgy, uneasy take of Danny O’Keefe’s Goodtime Charlie’s Got the Blues and “a song Elvis Costello covered,” an understatedly intense Good Year for the Roses. Clark is upstairs at 2A this Sunday the 16th at around 8 with Lenny Kaye playing pedal steel, plus an expected cavalcade of similar NYC rock luminaries.

Jazz for Halloween

What do you think of when you hear the phrase “free jazz?” Bleating saxophones? Thrashing drums? Guitar noodling? Trumpeters inhaling instead of blowing into their horns? Pianists lifting the lid and taking a toilet brush to the strings? Mikko Innanen & Innkvisitio’s album Clustrophy sounds absolutely nothing like that. But it is creepy. It’s been out since last year (hence its appearance on this page rather than at NYMD’s more refined sister blog), and much of it makes a great Halloween soundtrack.

In all fairness, this isn’t exactly free jazz: “improvicompositional,” the buzzword du jour, perfectly describes what this album is all about. Where does the band hail from? Finland. What is their most notable characteristic? Seppo Kantonen’s synthesizer. That’s right: the machine that destroyed pop music in the 70s and 80s and has lately been resurrected by the spoiled brats of Bushwick and their chillwave also happens to be the main source of menace here – but in a very, very good way. The creepiness is alluded to but doesn’t creep in until the second track, an atmospheric piece that builds to an alarming 9/11 choir of devil’s chords. A little later on, Kantonen starts out with one of those 70s organ-with-no-sustain patches and mutates it slowly and methodically into a sepulchral, metallic timbre where he finally has to give up the rivulets and hit it hard because the notes are vanishing into thin air almost as soon as they’re born: iodine-131 jazz? Throughout the album, as Innanen notes, Kantonen’s ability to coax a vast spectrum of sounds out of his keys and use them all for potent effect is pretty amazing.

Elsewhere, the band swings, they bubble improvisationally both together and apart, they bustle like Mingus, they turn Gershwin’s Summertime into The Ardennes at Dawn (think after a nasty battle, smoke still rising) and when they finally go blaring and blasting at each other, there’s a comedic aspect to it. They understand that three duelling saxes (Innanen, Fredrik Ljungkvist and Daniel Erdmann) plus Joonas Riippa’s machine-gun drumming are a better recipe for tightly orchestrated vaudeville than for chaotic, macho posturing. There are parts here which are demanding, which will lose listeners leaning in hard to find the melody because there isn’t much, but there are also very direct moments and most of them are on the dark side. As Innanen says on the opening page of the extremely informative 25-page cd booklet (literally a history of the band, out now on Finnish label Tum Records):

In the darkness looking for the main switch
How many of us will it take to turn on the light?
Everyone has a chance but it might be hard
Lose your fears
See with your ears

Two Tracks You Might Like

Bobby Vacant & the Worn’s new video Nobody’s There is surprisingly upbeat, apprehensive and distantly creepy rock from the Swiss-based songwriter whose 2009 album Tear Back the Night with noted Chicago producer/multi-instrumentalist George Reisch was one of that year’s best. This rocks a lot harder yet more opaquely than this guy’s recent work (those reverb tank explosions kick ass…). And the video – old Midnight Cowboy-style neon-lit downtown Main Street footage from the 60s – is choice. From the forthcoming album Virginia Neon, due out on Swiss label Weak Records next month.

And speaking of relevant socially aware songwriters, Stephan Said has a completely kick-ass new site  with a global mix of related, politically-fueled artists, plus a new album, difrnt, and some killer tracks up at soundcloud including Aheb Aisht Al Huriyah (the classic 1920s Mohammed Abdel Wahab levantine anthem I Live the Life of Freedom), updated for the Traquair Square/Zucotti Park era with a gently swaying trip-hop/rock edge that gives way to a blistering psychedelic guitar solo at the end. The other tracks on the page, including the more hip-hop flavored Take a Stand give you a taste of how eclectic this guy is.