New York Music Daily

Love's the Only Engine of Survival

Month: January, 2013

Kagero’s New Album Is a Blast

Like an awful lot of gypsy rock bands, Kagero model themselves on Gogol Bordello, right down to frontman Kaz Fujimoto’s wry, surreal sense of humor and probably intentionally twisted English syntax. But Kagero’s sound is different. Although their lively minor-key songs are obviously made for dancing and keeping the party going, they’re a mostly acoustic band: other than a handful of electric guitar tracks and occasional keyboards, their lineup is totally acoustic, including a punchy horn section. Their songwriting is more eclectic than most of the rest of the gypsy crew, reaching into oldtime swing, hip-hop and sometimes taking on a little bit of a ska bounce. Any way you slice it, they’re one of New York’s most entertaining bands, as their new album Gumbo du Jour confirms. They’re playing the album release show sometime in the late hours of Feb 2 at Nublu and if you’re going, get there early because the place will be packed. People dance at Kagero shows.

The opening track, Smokin’ on Bali Shag, immediately sets the tone, a violin-fueled retro 20s swing shuffle with a surreal Cockney hip-hop flavor: imagine the Streets fronting Gogol Bordello. Most of it seems to be the random observations of a guy who’s really hungover. Back to Jakarta is a slyly funny look at a global problem: “I like my country but there’s no employment,” says the narrator, asking himself, “Should I stay just five more years, that’s what I said five years ago.”

One of the album’s funniest songs is Rockstar in a Grocery Store: the violin dances down the scale and sets off the tale of a guy who can only afford breakfast in Chinatown and may never be able to take a real vacation, but nothing’s gonna stop him from playing with his band every night. They keep that vibe going (outside of a gorgeously uneasy piano solo) with My Freedom, a look at life from beneath the Manhattan bridge from the point of view of an irrepressible guy who may be “less rich in my pocket but I’m richer in my mind.”

Angel Baby, a wry bossa rock tune, paints a picture of a guy who’s way too drunk to be hitting on the girls – and of course that’s what he does. Life’s a Thrill nicks the lick from Sunny, Bobby Hebb’s big 60s pop hit and turns it into gypsy rock with hip-hop touches and edgy horns. Girl from the Coldest Country recounts how sad it feels to suddenly see your favorite Polish girl bartender, who “was good at making drinks with some strange tropic names,” walk away to hopefully a better life far from her job at 301 West 42nd Street (Port Authority, in case you’re wondering).

The best tune here, the Ukrainian/klezmer-fueled It’s a Perfect Day to Laugh is also the hardest one to figure out, lyrically speaking. The band takes a surprisingly successful detour into funk with Greencard Bride, with its LMAO intro and then a sobering look at the cynical reality of life under the radar. Gypsy Connection celebrates gypsy rock in all its unselfconscious glory: “Yes I’m New York country boy, try to play cool and emotionless but the night is so exuberant.” Lonely Rose Vendor has another funny intro to kick off a bristling, fiery, mariachi-tinged story about the kind of entrepreneur you see late at night trying to cajole happy couples into buying things they really don’t need. The album ends with Song from Africa, a sarcastically funny tune about a possibly homeless busker who’s had enough of the clueless gentrifier girls who pester him to “play that song from Africa.,” and then the hard-hitting Morna, which has a tinge of ska. What a great album: thirteen tracks, all of them excellent, plus you can dance to them. It’s early in the year, but this is contender for best of 2013, right up there with the Brooklyn What and Pete Galub.


Twin Guns’ New Album: Dark Reverb Central

Twin Guns’ new album Sweet Dreams is all about the reverb: waves, and waves, and waves of it. What’s most amazing about the album is that it’s just two members, guitarist Andrea Sicco and drummer Jungle Jim (formerly of the Cramps and the Makers).  Recorded by Hugh Pool at Brooklyn’s famed Excello studios and produced by Heavy Trash’s Matt Verta-Ray, it’s a feast of menacing retro guitar sonics. In fact, there’s so much guitar, you don’t even notice that there’s no bass. Fans of vintage equipment will have a field day guessing which amps and guitars are getting a workout. And while you could pigeonhole this as garage rock or ghoulabilly, it transcends any label you could stick on it. It’s just good. Fans of loud, dark rock have a lot to enjoy here. One good band this resembles sometimes is bass-less two-guitar Pennsylvania garage/punk rockers the Brimstones.

The title track is a pounding, syncopated monster surf instrumental with hollers of pain – or something like pain – echoing in the background. It’s the great lost track from the acid trip sequence in Jack Nicholson’s The Trip. The second cut blends ghoul-garage rock with a relentlessly assaultive Radio Birdman vibe. “I always turned away from love to be with all my demons,” Sicco explains.

They follow that with a snarling fuzztone riff-rocker, then a slowish G-L-O-R-I-A vamp with reverbtoned harmonica. Never Satisfied moves ominously from echoing spaghetti western riffage, to a chromatically-charged menace, to a Psychotic Reaction verse and then gets slow and creepy again. The Creeper sounds like Morricone doing Link Wray, while Teenage Boredom, arguably the album’s best song, infuses Lynchian 60s-pop with layers and layers of guitar, tremoloing, smoldering, pulsing, filling every corner of the sonic picture like liquid pitchblende, lethal but irresistible.

Bloodline nicks the riff from Bela Lugosi’s Dead, adds an Apache drumbeat and echoes of the 13th Floor Elevators. Mystery Ride mingles screaming cowpunk and goth, with a tasty, surfy outro. Motor City – a tribute to the Ludlow Street bar, maybe? – blends Syd Barrett and X influences. The album ends with the slow, Gun Club-style dirge Wild Years, taking on a macabre bolero surf edge as its murky waves rise. As far as creating a mood and keeping it going, this is as good as it gets. An early, sonically luscious contender for best rock record of 2013. The whole thing is streaming at Twin Guns’ Bandcamp page.

Songwriter Plus String Quartet = Dark Plus Intense

When you think of a songwriter with a string quartet, you probably imagine the end result being some kind of chamber pop or art-rock. What Matt Siffert has done is something entirely new. It’s not opera or arias but it’s not rock either: you could classify this as indie classical with vocals, or a style that Siffert has invented and has yet to name. Either way, his new album Cold Songs is is an extremely enjoyable, bracing ride.

Don’t let Siffert’s soft voice fool you: he has an edge. While there’s a lot of bitterness in the storyline here, Siffert has a sense of humor that often takes centerstage.The music follows the lyrics very closely, sometimes almost to the syllable, shifting from pensive and wistful to savage and vicious, or simply playful. The composition is lively and sophisticated, with intricate counterpoint, polyrhythms and harmonies that range from austere to harsh to hints of neoromanticism, serenely sustained passages up against slashing, turbulent interludes. Violinists Maria Im and Olivia Mok, violist Erin Wight and cellist Eric Allen dig in, soar and wail through this terse five-song collection

The first song, Figures from Your Past sets the tone, shifting nonchalantly from a rather blithe pizzicato intro to brooding and then insistant and angry. After a seething a-cappella verse -“Even a thief tastes my kiss, even a jackal hears my hiss, even a weatherman feels my fickleness” – the strings rise up again, agitated, to a cold ending.

The second track, October is the post-breakup scene, brooding and downcast, biting melody set to a lush arrangement. Showoff brings some welcome comic relief: “Sometimes I gotta show off,” is Siffert’s insistent mantra, as he turns the quartet loose with dancing countermelodies over a catchy cello hook and a jauntily suspenseful vamp on the way out.

Two Women at Once is a wryly rakish, theatrical Brecht/Weill-style cabaret number with an unexpectedly creepy interlude and an equally unexpected plaintiveness as it winds out: none of these songs follow any kind of predictable verse/chorus format.  “I haven’t loved in weeks, maybe more, maybe none,” Siffert’s narrator asserts. The album returns to a pensive and eventually creepy ambience with When Is It Gonna Be Me, whose steady, apprehensive swirl foreshadows that this is no ordinary lovelorn ballad, and as it darkens it becomes genuinely sinister. Where Siffert goes from there is ts too good to spoil.  You can hear all this at his Bandcamp page, where the album is streaming all the way through: Siffert and this string quartet play Zirzamin on Feb 1 at 8 PM.

Ambrosia Parsley Continues Her Noir Comeback

Singer Ambrosia Parsley got off to a pop-oriented start with Shivaree, best known for the noir pop hit Goodnight Moon from an early zeros Tarantino soundtrack. But her most memorable work to date has been for Air America, the network that braved the airwaves as a sane counterpart to wingnut radio during the mid to late part of the past decade. Much as Parsley’s acerbic, Phil Ochs-ish takes on the news of the day won her a wide audience back in 2004, she has not been idle since, with a new album in the works and an ep, I Miss You, I Do, to show for it in the meantime. She’s playing the big room at Rockwood tonight, 1/28 at 7:15 PM with some pals from her radio days including similarly politically-fueled comedienne Lizz Winstead and others; advance tix are $12 and available at the big room. Intriguing ambient/indie classical composer/violinist Christina Courtin follows afterward at 9:30 PM.

The ep bridges the gap between synthily textured indie rock and a more melodic, retro noir style. It opens with The Other Side, woozy vintage synth on the intro, a backbeat and an echoey wall of resonant guitars. There’s a bit of a Dolly Parton lilt in Parsley’s voice – undernearth all the rock trappings, this is a country song. Parsley follows that with Whispering Pines, a slow piano ballad with low, watery synth organ, sort of an update on creepy, Lynchian Julee Cruise pop.

Nighttime, with its ethereal acoustic guitar hook and gentle guy/girl vox, works a hypnotic post-Wilco Americana-pop vein that contrasts with the restlessness of the lyrics. Losing the Holiday slowly works a growling, guitar-fueled Americana rock vamp with twinkling electric keys overhead. The final track is The Answer (Tim & Becky’s Wedding, the most Lynchian cut here, an atmospheric take on wistful, angst-fueled Orbison pop. Imagine Dennis  Hopper gasping “Candy-colored clown!” to this helps fill out the picture.

Sunday Salons 9, 10 and 11: Going Full Throttle Now

Some of you might see the weekly calendar for New York Music Daily’s Sunday Salon  at Zirzamin here week after week and wonder what’s up with it. Obviously, some of you have been in the house, either performing or watching, so this is a shout-out to you for being there and supporting, as well as to the musicians who make it so much fun. Case in point: cellist Serena Jost, whose own music is elegant and nuanced to the nth degree, wailing and thrashing her way through a long improvised solo on an even longer Rick Snyder country blues ballad. Rachelle Garniez graced the stage with her wickedly subtle, edgy, occasionally gospel-flavored retro rock and soul; Martin Bisi brought his pedalboard and haunted the room with casually menacing, slowly unwinding Lynchian art-rock songs. Jon Ladeau brought his original, soulful oldtime Americana; Carol Lipnik wowed everybody with her four-octave vocal range and mysterious, mystical, phanstasmagorical material. LJ Murphy ,with his thousand-yard stare and withering, politically-fueled lyrics, and  Walter Ego, with his nimble basslines and tough stance on gun control have also made frequent appearances.

The featured sets after the salon give some of New York’s best invited performers an opportunity to take some chances and do some unexpected things in Zirzamin’s intimate space. For Lorraine Leckie and Her Demons, that meant pulling back a little on the Canadian gothic ferocity, putting her excellent drummer on cajon, letting guitar genius Hugh Pool work his quieter side (it’s true – such a thing exists) and exploring the secret corners of some of her louder, more glam or punk-inspired songs.

For Mark Sinnis, longtime leader of artsy, dark Americana rockers Ninth House, justifiably acclaimed for his solo “cemetery and western” Nashville gothic stylings, that meant a rare Manhattan performance with James Brown (one of the living James Browns) playing gorgoeusly retro rockabilly and country lines on his big Gretsch guitar, mingling with the virtuoso banjo intensity of Stephen Gara. With his big baritone voice, Sinnis often evokes Johnny Cash, with this project now more than ever. And this past Sunday, Tracy Island a.k.a. Liza Roure and Ian Roure from the Larch (and the late, great WonderWheels) romped through a hypnotically jangly, psychedelically edgy mix of old favorites and darker new material. Ian brought out his new pedalboard, chock full of old effects for fiery 80s-influenced solos and fills while Liza channeled her classical training into a rapturous take of Leonard Cohen’s Stories of the Street as well as cynical versions of originals like Where’s My Robot Maid, Land of Opportunity and a warmly evocative new song inviting everybody down to Freddy’s Bar in South Brooklyn for the Mermaid Parade afterparty.

Every Sunday at 5 PM, New York Music Daily presents the Sunday Salon at Zirzamin, where some of New York’s edgiest songwriters and musicians trade songs and cross-pollinate in the old Zinc Bar space at Houston and LaGuardia. There’s never a cover charge; the club has cheap beer, good Tex-Mex food, and the public is welcome to attend. Participation is by invitation only. The featured set at 7 PM this Sunday, Jan 27 is by charismatic, ferociously intense acoustic punk-blues songwriter Molly Ruth.

Intense Pandemonium at the Brooklyn What’s Album Release Show

The crowd at the Brooklyn What’s album release show Saturday night was a lot more physical than you typically see at concerts by bands this smart. On one hand, that was to be expected, considering how many bodies were crammed into Public Assembly, a smaller space than these guys are used to playing. On the other hand, people dance to this band: within seconds of frontman Jamie Frey’s rapidfire lyrical assault on the opening song, Catastrophe Kids – which ironically is a diatribe about the too-cool-for-school crowd who’re too scared to move a muscle at shows – a friendly moshpit formed in front of the stage. Meanwhile, bumping and bouncing was happening pretty much everywhere else. By the end of their set, what looked like half the audience had gathered onstage with the band for a delirious singalong on the irrepressible, defiant outsider anthem We Are the Only Ones  In an era when the too-cool-for-school bands get so much undeserved attention, it felt good just to be part of this big messy crowd, feeding off the explosive energy of the tuneful nonconformists onstage.

In the three years since their 2009 debut The Brooklyn What for Borough President, this band has gotten incredibly tight. While it never really makes sense to say that one great band is necessarily any “better” than another, there is definitely no better band in New York right now than the Brooklyn What. Jesse Katz was a decent rock drummer when they first started; he’s a great one now. All the band’s constant gigging has paid off, especially for their two powerful, individualistic lead guitarists, Evan O’Donnell and John-Severin Napolillo, who teamed up for a gale-force assault that was as intricately tuneful as it was loud (and it wasn’t always loud). They hit a high point on a long, pyrotechnic duel midway through Punk Rock Loneliness, a cruelly amusing look at gentrification and its destructive effects on music and New York neighborhoods. They did the same thing on the encore, the Stooges’ I Wanna Be Your Dog, where Frey left no doubt what that song was all about, Napolillo dodging stagedivers as O’Donnell hung on the sideline, nonchalantly firing off searing, Ron Asheton-worthy bluesmetal leads.

In between, the dynamics shifted artfully from pummeling punk rock to slower, more pensive material, Frey’s goodnatured come-on croon leading the band upward on the impressively jazzy Winter Song and then the ridiculously catchy Late Night Travelers, an artsy anthem written by the band’s late guitarist Billy Cohen. Caught at a rare loss for words, obviously still hurting from the loss of his bandmate, Frey managed to explain that this band was originally a six-piece outfit and that Cohen – who if he was still alive would probably be doing film scores, and the indie classical music he had such an affinity for, in addition to this project – would be proud as hell. There’s no doubt that’s true. Then the band launched into Cohen’s wickedly shapeshifting, theatrically surreal Hot Wine, their new album’s title track.

Coy, sarcastic soul and doo-wop-influenced punk matched up against searing postpunk like the ridiculously catchy singalong In the Basement – an anthem for disheartened outsiders everywhere, not to mention this year’s Mets team. The biggest crowd-pleaser could have been a cover of Gimme Shelter that might have been even better than the original, bassist Doug Carey taking Bill Wyman’s growling lines and somehow making them even more menacing, the two guitars tuned down to perfectly recreate Keith Richards’ otherworldly eeriness, Saruh Lacoff (of side project John-Severin & the Quiet 1s) taking Merry Clayton’s backing vocal up several notches.

The Brooklyn What also happen to be a magnet for other good bands. Opening acts are usually hit-and-miss, but this lineup was strong. Butter the Children got the night off to a good start with their swirling vintage MBV/early Lush dreampop jangle and clang, their guitarist and bassist exchanging axes and playing equally tunefully on each instrument as frontwoman Inna Mkrtycheva sang uneasily about Casey Anthony and similar tension-inducing situations. Osekre & the Lucky Bastards followed with a tuneful, catchy set that mixed oldschool soul and Afrobeat. After that, Persian-American rockers the Yellow Dogs, who began with an artsy, biting Rickenbacker guitar anthem, wasted no time hitting a slinky, equally anthemic, swaying funk/disco groove. The Brooklyn What are at the Lab, 224 Wyckoff Ave in  Bushwick on Feb 22, L/M to Myrtle-Wyckoff.

Changing Modes: Hard to Figure Out, Easy to Sing Along to at Spike Hill

Isn’t it a pain to have to choose between two equally tantalizing shows? Saturday night, it was impossible to resist the temptation to sneak away from the Brooklyn What’s album release gig at Public Assembly while the opening acts played, since Changing Modes were on the bill around the corner at Spike Hill. With two keyboardists, guitar, bass and drums, their music is complex yet manages to be extremely catchy. Frontwomen Wendy Griffiths and Grace Pulliam both play synthesizers, and while they aren’t above hamming it up once in awhile with a woozy oscillation or a fat phony horn patch, their sound isn’t cheesy. As much as what they do has a very 80s feel, their sense of that decade’s sounds zeros in toward dark, often menacing new wave rather than cliched radio pop.

To say that this band has an edge is an understatement  Throughout the set, the two women worked an inscrutably alluring, sometimes dangerous vein. Pulliam swayed with just the hint of what might have been a sadistic smile as she fine-tuned her pedalboard for minute orchestral adjustments, while Griffiths pogoed behind her keys, at one point emerging to put her foot up on a monitor and fix a thousand-yard stare on the crowd. But she also has a quirky sense of humor: at one point, she let out a random “whoop” seemingly just for the hell of it, later on putting on a pair of red shades with blinking lights, only to discard them seconds afterward. Meanwhile, Yuzuru Sadashige played nimble basslines for a couple of songs before switching to guitar, at which point a bassist came onstage to team up with their tight drummer Timur Yusef.

Unexpected tempo changes, loud/soft dynamic shifts and unpredictable song structures met their match in singalong choruses, Griffiths and Pulliam trading off verses or individual lines when they weren’t blending their voices for some soaring harmonies. Pulliam sang Down to You, a standout track from the band’s latest album In Flight, with a cold vengefulness, Sashadige cutting loose with a searing bluesiness as he would do all night, Griffiths adding a terse classically-tinged piano solo.  A wickedly catchy, insistent new song, Jeanine (sp?) might have been about a cat, or someone with feline tendencies. The album version of Ghost in the Backseat is a dead ringer for early X, but this time out they slowed it down, making it more gothic than punk, at least until another blazing Sashadige guitar solo.

They followed a burning, ominously riff-driven cover of Jamiroquai’s Deeper Underground with a slow, creepy, watery art-rock anthem, an apprehensive new wave tune with an Afrobeat-flavored guitar intro and then a creepy version of Here, the darkly unpredictable title track from their 2010 album. They closed with what might have been a cover, Griffiths and Pulliam harmonizing energetically over a catchy new wave beat. Although the turnout was good and the crowd was into the show, a band this smart and original deserves more exposure. Somewhere there has to be an indie suspense movie that would be a perfect match for Changing Modes’ eclectic, moody yet upbeat songs.

Chicago Farmer’s New Album Tells Some Good Stories

Cody Diekhoff’s wryly aphoristic, darkly amusing country-folk songcraft evokes icons like John Prine and Steve Earle while it fits in with the top tier of current-day Americana artists like fellow Chicagoan Joe Pug. Recorded under Diekhoff’s performing name Chicago Farmer, his new album Backenforth, IL is just out and it tells a catchy bunch of tales. In a big city, his misfit characters would be called nonconformists – in a a rural area, they’re more likely to be considered smalltime criminals, and he’s got a soft spot for them.

The opening track, Everybody in This Town is the musical standout here. It sounds like the Wallflowers backing John Prine, with a Joe Day organ break that’s beyond gorgeous, something that keyboardists will be nicking years from now. Drawling over it, Dieckhoff contemplates the rougher side of smalltown life and how everybody’s business is everybody else’s.

The next track is Working on It, a swaying honkytonk tune with some tasty dobro. A song that breaks the fourth wall might not be the first thing you would think of in country music but this one does, and it works. A stoner folk tune with bite, The Twenty Dollar Bill at first seems like it’s going to turn into a sentimental tale about missing the old folks but takes quickly an unexpected turn that’s too good to spoil here.

With its bubbling pedal steel and brisk bluegrass shuffle beat, Backenforth is another song that at first sounds a lot more happy and laid-back than it turns out to be. The swaying, all-acoustic 200 Miles Away is a mystery story, with a country-blues feel like the stuff that’s been coming out of Brooklyn lately. The best tale of all of them here is The Jon Stokes Prison Break Blues, a scampering account of a smalltime crook who busts out of jail, with some unexpected punchlines – it’s a story worthy of Woody Guthrie.

The edgiest song here, another one that brings to mind Woody Guthrie, is Who on Earth, a scathing broadside directed at holier-than-thou hypocrites:

I got a ticket for a busted headlight
It’s 11 AM, sunny and bright
Limit’s 55, I was doing 57
Now I don’t know how I’ll get into heaven

And it gets better from there. The album ends with Backseat, a jaunty country-folk shuffle. Dieckhoff gets around a lot – it’s not unrealistic to think he might hit New York one of these days, watch this space.

Grace Kelly’s Live Album: Norah Jones for Smart People

Ever try to elevate peoples’ game, listeningwise? You have to choose your moments. Usually this kind of persuasion works best on older people who only know the most popular, poppiest artists in a particular style. You like that Adele song? Just wait til you hear Sharon Jones. What’s that, the Eagles’ Greatest Hits? Um…you might like Mumford & Sons. A small step for humankind; a quantum leap for your friend.

Likewise, if Norah Jones works for you in theory but not in practice, you’ll love Grace Kelly. Like Jones when she first got started, a lot of what Kelly is doing lately is a more lively take on countrypolitan, a Nashville sound that was popular in the late 50s and 60s. Producer Owen Bradley and others would take standard-issue country songs, add lush strings and often elements of jazz. Willie Nelson got his start that way; Patsy Cline and Skeeter Davis achieved crossover success with songs like Crazy and The End of the World. Kelly comes to this music from the opposite direction. A saxophonist by trade, she’s a protegee of bop jazz legend Phil Woods, and she also sings.

On her new album Live at Scullers, there’s some straight-up jazz – an animated, swinging take on the Jerome Kern standard The Way You Look Tonight, and an original, Autumn Song, which moves gracefully from a lush intro to an exuberant romp featuring the whole band. On the funk side, the concert ends with a sprawling, goodnatured cover of Summertime that brings to mind  Brooklyn psychedelic funkmeisters Otis. In between is the vocal stuff and most of it is very good.

The show opens with Please Don’t Box Me In, an elegant, artsy bossa pop tune that Kelly uses to air out her upper register, vocalwise, and follows later on with a carefree but terse alto sax solo. The arrangements here are a lot closer to jazz than country: the big swells can be lush, but more often than not the playing is spare and smart…like the way Pete McCann gently tremolopicks his guitar chords and then smacks them right on the beat as the song winds out. Trumpeter Jason Palmer keeps the energy high; bassist Zach Brown bows a couple of wry country fiddle solos, cellist Eric Law taking over the basslines when he does that, drummer Mark Walker hanging back with a steady purist groove.

Kelly wrote the lyrics to the mutedly frustrated, bouncily syncopated country tune Eggshells in a hotel room in Germany and the music on the plane home to Boston. She leads the band back into bossa-tinged jazz-funk on Night Time Star, then goes into boudoir country-bluesy territory with the nonchalantly seductive Ready, Set, Stay. The longest track here is the funky instrumental Searching for Peace, lit up by high-energy solos from Palmer and then Kelly on soprano sax. The band’s cool, low-key approach on the country waltz Kiss Away Your Tears matches the tenderness of the lyrics; then they pick up the pace with a ukulele tune.

Kelly is relatively young (early 20s), and most of her band, other than the guys who serve as Paquito D’Rivera’s rhythm section, seem around that age as well, so there are some rookie mistakes. A numbing bagpipe-metal guitar solo destroys the coy mood on one of the country songs – and why they’d want to have somebody whistling off-key where Kelly could have played the tune on soprano and nailed it is anybody’s guess. But that’s nitpicking. Kelly is smart, writes her own songs and is somebody to keep your eye on – and the album makes a great nudge gift for someone you know who would embrace good music if they just had the time or the energy to go looking for it. That’s where you come in.

Good Imaginative Bands on a Cold Night in Gowanus

For once, a seasonably cold Friday night didn’t keep the Brooklyn massive indoors. Down the block from the trash truck depot at the edge of where Gowanus meets Sunset Park, a boisterously responsive crowd gathered at the unexpectedly lavish, relatively new venue SRB to see two of New York’s most original bands.

Karikatura were first on the bill, playing a slinky mix of latin rock and gypsy rock with some reggae and ska thrown in as well. Their frontman played beats on a conga head on several songs and sang nonchalantly smart, socially conscious lyrics over a fiery horn section (alto or tenor sax plus trombone), plus a guitarist playing biting, often flamenco-tinged lines on a nylon-stringed acoustic-electric over the rhythm section’s eclectic grooves. The most infectious of all the songs was Bailarina, which nicked the riff from the famous Algerian freedom fighter anthem Ya Rayyeh and turned it into an unexpectedly angst-fueled reflection by a guy who’s probably more infatuated with a dancing girl than he should be. It’s too loud to talk over the music, all my friends are drunk and I don’t like the idea of other guys hitting on you, the poor dude laments.

Celi, from the band’s most recent ep, Departures, was more hipswinging and seductive. Shortly after that they went into the edgy reggae liberation anthem Una Idea, a richly bass-heavy track from that release, then brought that idea back toward the end of the set with a soaring version of Some Kind Of (Free), a standout tune from their Muzon ep from a couple of years ago. They finally cut loose and jammed on their last number, with a hard-hitting bass break and then a blazing conversation between tenor sax and trombone. Karikatura are a popular touring act  in Europe and south of the border: it was good to see them on their home turf.

House of Waters are one of the most original bands on the planet. Their name is apt: frontman Max ZT, a national champion on the hammered dulcimer, played intricate, incisively rippling melodies throughout their set alongside cajon player Luke Notary and eight-string bassist Moto Fukushima. On the first song, Fukushima played through an octave pedal for a wry, techy tone that contrasted with the rustic feel of the dulcimer. Their music was as danceable as it was psychedelic: on the occasions when the dulcimer passsed off a rhythmic riff to the cajon, it was sometimes impossible to tell who was playing what. On a couple of tunes, Fukushima hit his pedal for a resonant, djeridoo-like drone; he also meandered through a Jerry Garcia-like solo on the high frets and then a wry disco bassline on one of the last songs. On another, Notary switched to ngoni lute as the drummer from Seth Kessel & the Two Cent Band joined them and played a slinky cumbia groove on guacharaca.

Max ZT is a force of nature and a lot of fun to watch, his hands a blur as he fired off supersonically shuffling licks that sounded almost like a mandolin in places. Bits and pieces of gypsy, Appalachian and soukous melodies rang out and pinged through the mix. The next-to-last song – a track from the band’s Revolution album – was intoxicatingly good, shifting suddenly out of  a slow, moody gypsy-flavored vamp when the band took it doublespeed.

Kessel and his Two Cent Band were scheduled to play their goodnaturedly high-energy oldtimey swing and gypsy jazz at some later point in the evening, but by then it was midnight in Gowanus and time to find out if the trains were still running (they were). Catch you next time, guys – they’re at Union Hall in Park Slope on Feb 2 and then at Radegast Hall in Williamsburg on Feb 6.