New York Music Daily

Love's the Only Engine of Survival

Month: August, 2013

Hard-Hitting Americana Rock and Classic Country from Mike Stinson

Mike Stinson’s Hell & Half of Georgia is a hell of an Americana rock record. It’s got some Stonesy barroom stomps, some honkytonk, a couple of slow oldschool C&W ballads, and a little ferocious garage rock. The band is fantastic, soaring pedal steel trading off with edgy, biting lead guitar over a tight rhythm section. Stinson’s songwriting draws as much on vintage country as it does Dylanesque, lyrically driven rock; the most upbeat, hardest-rocking stuff reminds of the Bottle Rockets. One thing you should know about this album: Stinson likes lists, and lyrical riffs that he can do over and over again, switching in a new word every time around and stretching it out as far as it’ll go for laughs. The shtick works; he can be a very funny guy.

Stinsons’s surreal, dark sense of humor pervades a lot of these songs. Late for My Funeral, a snarling, sort of dark garage rock song, could be Dire Straits with more balls. The poor guy in the song just can’t get anywhere on time: too late for demerol, he ends up being too late for Geritol too, unable to get away from the scene of the crime by the time the cops come, and it just gets worse for the poor guy. The sardonic rockabilly shuffle May Have to Do It does double duty as sly, aphoristic workingman’s anthem and political commentary. Box I Take to Work, a catalog of things both real and abstact, will resonate with anybody who’s ever spent any time on the road playing music.

This Year works a Stonesy two-chord vamp: “I will be your lover but I don’t want to be a sucker this year…if we can recover this year,” Stinson muses. Likewise, Broken Record works a backbeat bar-rock tune with some of the album’s funniest lyrics and musical jokes too:

My mama was a cylinder born in 1933
My daddy dropped the needle down and then created me
My golden age of vinyl, that’s as good as it gets
My nephew is an eight-track, my kids are both cassettes

Stinson gives away his generational roots here: maybe his grandkids will be WAVs?

An oldschool Texas shuffle, Died and Gone to Houston sends a shout-out to Stinson’s hometown: “If you see me stumbling about, around the way, just drop me off in Houston, I’ll be ok,” he explains. Another slow ballad, Walking Home in the Rain is a lot more serious and understatedly sad. Stinson picks it up with droll chickenscratch guitar on Got a Thing For You, which reminds of the Yayhoos. The best song on the album might be Lost Side of Town, a nonchalantly Dylanesque midtempo tune which manages to be funny but really bleak at the same time:

It took a lot of climbing to get out here on this limb
Took some bad timing and some chances that were slim
And it took a lot of acting like I really had it down
I was only heading for the lost side of town

The album ends with the sarcastic The Kind of Trouble I Need, a searing, Kasey Anderson-ish riff-rock song where Stinson starts out comedic and then finally lets loose with a murderous menace: “That’s the kind of trouble I need,” yeah, right. Stinson plays Hill Country on October 3 at 8:30.


Erin Regan Brings Down the Lights Thursday Night

Last night at Sidewalk Erin Regan sat quiet, composed and mysterious, her face partly obscured behind auburn bangs as she played a brooding, often haunting solo acoustic set to a hushed, avid crowd who knew her songs and made a lot of requests. Regan seems to fly pretty much under the radar: if she plays other venues, they don’t publicize it (hardly an uncommon predicament for a New York songwriter). If she hadn’t told the audience that she was bleeding all over her fretboard – she’d cut her finger before the show – no one would have noticed, other than the fact that she stuck to her slower, less musically complicated material.

Regan is an eclectically competent acoustic guitarist and an unselfconsciously affecting, often riveting singer, this time channeling understated longing and brooding resignation – although when she isn’t injured, she can be a lot more animated. As strong a tunesmith and singer as she is, it’s her bleak, vivid narratives that distinguish her from the legions of sad girls with acoustic guitars. She opened with a hypnotic waltz, its glum protagonist hearing nothing as she watches her mom switching the stations on the car radio. She writes her name in the frost on the window glass and wonders if her mom ever felt as helpless as she does. She lives in Brooklyn, used to play music but “mostly just writes short stories…through the dark and the sunset and the blankets I wonder, if I jumped off a bridge would I swim like a fish or go under?”

Regan stuck with slow waltz time for much of the show. One drew a portrait of neighborly kindness, or at least an attempt at it: one leaves some candy for the other, who ultimately is too depressed to eat it. Another had a distantly torchy, 1930s feel: “Will I take my love to the grave or will I give it all away?” Regan pondered. She went into folk noir for another one, grimly watching the days passing by, and then took the mood into dark, minor-key Appalachian territory. Later on, her voice soared with an unexpected, plaintive crescendo at the end of a Britfolk-tinged number that could have been an Amanada Thorpe song.

The big hit with the crowd was Mom’s Car, a request, which sounds something like the Velvets’ Sunday Morning at halfspeed, a crushing portrait of clinical depression, its downcast narrator asking and eventually imploring for one more ride with the guy who’s just going to go back to his girlfriend afterward. Regan wrapped up the set with the catchiest, most lively and retro song of the night, which might have been a cautionary tale directed at a would-be suicide: the pavement isn’t soft, she warns the guy who’s grown out of sorts after being “exiled to the Upper East Side.” The stage Regan was playing being what it is, the vocals weren’t always high enough in the mix to catch all the lyrics. Yet that might have actually worked in her favor as it drew the crowd in and made them listen. Whatever the venue, she’s always worth seeing – and she gets extra props this time for playing through the blood.

Kotorino Turns Joe’s Pub Into a Dark Carnival

Right now Brooklyn’s Kotorino are as exciting as any other creepy, carnivalesque band in the world. Having seen Mucca Pazza, Rosin Coven, Rasputina and several others in that vein over the past few months, Kotorino are as lush and menacing as any of them – and they just keep growing. Earlier this evening at Joe’s Pub there were eight other musicians alongside frontman/guitarist Jeff Morris, whose brooding, rakish persona and disquietingly surreal narratives were fleshed out with majestic four-part harmonies, ominous noir vamps and tensely mysterious interludes punctuated by unexpected leaps and dives from throughout the band. This time out, immediately to Morris’ right on ukulele and percussion was Elia Bisker, who plays his dangerously torchy foil in the considerably quieter but equally menacing duo Charming Disaster. Among the rest of the players in the three-piece string section, horns, rhythm section and singing saw were violinist Molly White, bassist Mike Brown, drummer Jerome Morris (Jeff’s jazzy brother), trumpeter Jesse Selengut and low-register reedman Stefan Zeniuk (of psycho mambo band Gato Loco).

Morris’ songs range from noir cabaret to chamber pop and circus rock, with frequent latin and Romany influences. As the band has gotten bigger, the sound has grown louder. They opened the show with a noir mambo and ended with a tango about suicide. In between, they varied their dynamics, throughly rich arrangements with spine-tingling harmonies from the women and one trick ending after another. They began the surreal, probably symbolically loaded hot-air balloon epic Oh My God with a balmy but foreboding lushness, rising to an understated angst fueled by a simmering salsa groove. The next song was a dark cabaret narrative told from the point of view of a guy imagining all the fun he’s going to have after he springs his girlfriend out of the loony bin

A similarly shadowy, worrisome waltz was written for a Fringe Festival show, Morris explained – which says a lot about where these songs come from. This one ostensibly told the story of a cop, “a man in a long black car.” The one before that reminded of fellow Brooklyn art-rockers the Snow with its pulsing minor-key, chromatically bristling tune and its story about a girl who made some kind of promise before falling asleep – or something like sleep – on the kitchen floor. Bisker duetted with Morris on a torchy, jaunty but pensive oldtime swing-tinged song lit up by more of those gorgeous vocal harmonies and a similarly torchy Selengut solo. Then Morris switched to the piano for a brooding number that bookended a graceful art-rock anthem with a nebulously morose, lingering intro and outro.

“What is this mess that we call love?” the women sang on another jaunty swing number, like the Moonlighters on steroids – it was the most carnivalesque number of the night. The night’s most lavish, epic number was Williamsburg Suits, which could be a subtle, musically retro attack on fashion trends or gentrification, or both. Morris and Bisker played it four-handed on piano, Zeniuk’s bass sax and the trumpet trading incisive riffage, down to a long, shimmery, misterioso interlude and finally out with a distantly clanging, tone-bending menace (how many times has the word “menace” appeared here? If nothing else, that explains this band). If you wish you’d caught this concert, Kotorino are playing the album release show for their highly anticipated new one on Sept 27 at around 9:30 at the Cameo Gallery with Gato Loco – who can be just as dark and entertaining – opening at around 8:30.

Bluegrass Bass Star Missy Raines Puts Out an Intriguing, Original Rock Album

Bassist Missy Raines is a star in the bluegrass world, but her album New Frontier with her band the New Hip is an electric rock record. Much of it is 80s rock. Those songs sounds a lot like the Smiths, but with an emphasis on Johnny Marr guitar (Ethan Ballinger’s lingering, unresolved chords, surf allusions and distant angst) rather than what the Bushwick blog-pop groups steal from that band (cross your legs daintily and repeat with the proper affectation: “Oh, Bryce darling, it was nothing!”). The rest of the album is more straight-up janglerock than it is Americana-flavored. It turns out that Raines is not only a superb bassist but also an excellent singer, with a matter-of-fact, low-key delivery that’s sometimes hushed, sometimes seductive, sometimes channeling a simmering unease.

The opening track, Learn, shifts from a catchy, swaying verse with a hint of a trip-hop beat to an echoing, broodingly anthemic late 80s Britrock chorus. Raines follows that with Blackest Crow, a methodically swaying, understatedly ominous goodbye anthem, like Liz Tormes fronting the Room. The album’s title track works a ringing two-chord vamp that reminds of the Railway Children, Jarrod Walker’s mandolin and Ballinger’s guitar trading off elegantly. Nightingale traces a night ride through Florida with an Angel from Montgomery type hook that grows more mysterious and seductively lush on the chorus – it would be a standout Sheryl Crow song.

Long Way Back Home uneasily contemplates the temptations of fame and everything that comes with it – maybe you don’t become what you dream of being after all. Where You Found Me ramps up the ominousness with its resonant pools of guitar, like Lush with a gently resolute American accent, and Raines’ opaque lyrics: is this a story being told from beyond the grave? Likewise, Kites, a slow, brooding ballad, like a harder-edged Mazzy Star.

When the Day Is Done works a slowly swaying, moody blend of Americana and 80s Britrock. What’s the Callin’ For begins with a hint of bluegrass but then becomes a growling highway rock tune lit up by a searing guitar solo, part country and part dreampop: it’s a neat touch. The album ends with American Crow, a somber, metaphorically-charged bird-on-a-wire tableau. It’s quite a change of pace for Raines, but like all good musicians, she’s obviously listened and played far outside her regular style: she could be a fish out of water here, but she’s not.

Brilliant Ozark Fiddler Betse Ellis Reinvents Americana From Her Backyard

Betse Ellis is the rare artist with a distinctive voice as a singer, an instrumentalist and a songwriter. The Arkansas-born fiddler’s new album High Moon Order reflects that individuality, rooted in the Ozark folk tradition but spiked with edgy songwriting and original interpretations of old classics. Ellis, late of Kansas City alt-country hellraisers the Wilders, has an instantly recognizable, unaffectedly calm, attractively nuanced vocal style that often brings to mind Laura Cantrell. Ellis lets the angst in these songs speak for itself – her voice draws you in and then lets the lyrics hit you, and when she goes up for a swell or a high note, she can pack a wallop.

While she can shred with anyone, her playing throughout this mix of mostly slow-to-midtempo tunes is more about capturing a mood than burning down the barn. The instumentals here are flat-out gorgeous: the way Ellis blends the steady chords and bracing blue notes during her swaying take of Stamper is one of the album’s high points. Likewise, her lingering late-summer ambience on Queen of the Earth and Child of the Skies, or her reflecting-pool resonance on Long Time to Get There, which might be the album’s best song. She romps through the banjo tune Dry and Dusty, soars elegantly through a measured, deep woods lonesome take of Elk River Blues and a gently swaying, nocturnal duet of Twilight Is Stealing, reprising the traveler’s unease that echoes throughout the album. The darkest track here is the stark Ozark gothic dirge When Sorrows Encompass Me ‘Round.

Ellis’ songwriting is strong, too. The album opens with The Traveler, which grows to an unexpectedly explosive, majestic art-rock/chamber-pop chorus. “The way you live, it might not fit with anybody else…the yellow lines remind you not to look far behind you,” Ellis’ uneasy warfaring stranger cautions. The album ends with a Stonesy, vamping electric anthem capped off with a sinuous bass solo. In between, there’s a steel guitar-driven take of the country gospel standard Golden Road, more of an understated lament for the present than a look toward a heavenly future. There’s also a slowly unwinding, abrasive, fiddle-driven cover of the Clash’s Straight to Hell, revealing what a dis that song is. The Complainer, a lickety-split punk rock song, wouldn’t be out of place on X’s Wild Gift. And the brooding janglerock anthem The Collector makes the connection between exploring the folk song archive and exploring the many ways of getting one’s heart broken. Solid tunesmithing, purposeful playing, impactful vocals, smart lyrics and imaginatively curated traditional tunes combine to make this album one of the best of 2013.

Fun, Ferocious Afro-Klezmer Dance Music from Atlanta

Atlanta’s 4th Ward Afro-Klezmer Orchestra are one of the most original bands on the planet. Part high-voltage klezmer ensemble, part Afrobeat dance band, part circus rock, with tinges of Ethiopian music and hip-hop, their latest album Abdul the Rabbi is one of the year’s best. It’s streaming all the way through at the group’s Bandcamp page. The mighty nine-piece group draws on Jewish music from around the world as well as African and Middle Eastern sounds, many times within the same song. It’s a wild ride.

They open Yemenite Tanz with an uneasy trill from the alto sax over lingering noir guitar chords and then the band comes in, blazing and pulsing, exchanging edgy riffs, with a couple of spine-tingling, menacing alto solos followed by an even more-spine-tingling, shivery one from trumpeter Roger Ruzow. They begin a number by klezmer clarinet legend Naftule Brandwein as a brisk, triumphantly fiery minor-key anthem and then morph it into a slinky New Orleans-flavored theme with a summery alto solo. Then they give a funk-punk edge to Fiddler on the Roof and take it into Mulatu Astatke territory.

The title track has emcee Zano Ludgood rapping over Ruzow’s biting Middle Eastern changes:

My merger murders the devious previous…
Both sides have claims to insanity
They both derive from the same family
What I have is chutzpah
Most likely it’ll lead to a fatwa

But it looks hopefully toward peace in the Middle East as it winds up.

Yesh Li Gan, a traditional, Middle Eastern-flavored tune which grows from eerie and somber to a toweringly orchestral anthem on the wings of multi-reedman Jeff Crompton’s arangement, might be the best song here. Toco Hills Kiddush Club, by Ruzow, works an anthenmic, cinematic, marchlike Ethiopiques groove, like a more klezmer-fueled Either/Orchestra. Doina Blues, by Crompton sets a similarly Ethiopian-tinged melody to a spare noir guitar blues with all kinds of intriguing moments: Ruzow’s trumpet shadowing the clarinet, a terse trombone solo and absolutely sizzling ones from the baritone sax and guitars, all the way up to where they take it doublespeed and suddenly it’s a powerhouse Afrobeat groove. The album ends with the cinematic, suspenseful Der Stazi (a reference to the feared former East German gestapo, maybe?), the horns exchanging voices with a conspiratorial defiance over burning guitar, up to a wailing guitar duel out. You want adrenaline? Give this a listen. Solos aren’t credited to individual players on the Bandcamp page, but it’s a sizzling effort from Crompton, Ruzow, multi-reedman Bill Nittler, tenor saxophonist Tony Staffiero, trombonist Nick Dixon, guitarists Colin Bragg and Edin Beho, bassist Kevin Scott and drummer Noah Kess. Count this among the most fascinatingly original and intense albums of the year.

Mahogany Frog Make Quirky, Catchy Psychedelic Art-Rock

If you heard Mahogany Frog for the first time and didn’t know who they were, you might assume that they were a European band from around 1974. If you like your music terse and wrapped up in a neat three-minute package, this Winnipeg, Manitoba group is not for you, although their most recent album, Senna is a lot of fun. What differentiates multi-instrumentalists Graham Epp and Jesse Warkentin, bassist Scottt Ellenberger and drummer Andy Rudolph from the legions of artsy stoner bands from thirty years ago is that their songs here are all instrumentals, and they’re pretty much through-composed: hardly anything here ever repeats, creating a constant element of surprise, a surreal, nonlinear narrative. That the music would be so consistently catchy despite the absence of recurrent hooks speaks to the band’s tunesmithing. They employ a chateau full of vintage keyboard settings but none of the cheesy ones. Tempos tend to be tricky, although the bass and drums aren’t very busy: they go more for a hypnotic, looping rhythm. The guitar, surprisingly enough, is the tersest instrument here: no garish, extended soloing, just layers of incisive, occasionally noisy, biting phrases, one after the other. At the risk of sounding painfully stoned, this is an audio kaleidoscope. The whole thing is streaming at the band’s main page.

The album opens with the two-part Houndstooth, and within thirty seconds the echoes of Pink Floyd’s Echoes make themselves apparent in the gorgeously echoey, shimmering guitar riffs over tightly scampering keys, bass and drums. It builds with a tricky baroque rock flair and then sails with a David Gilmour-esque bite. A bass riff appears out of nowhere and signals the second part, which is a lot trickier, somewhat more aggressive with the guitar distortion and layers of keys and closer to what a lot of people would call prog (a listen to some of this stuff out of context might trigger an “eww, Yes!” but that comparison doesn’t hold up long: this band is vastly more focused).

Expo 67 (a Montreal historical reference) opens with a quick Welcome to the Machine-style envelopey white-noise synth intro and then moves to more straight-up and anthemic, with more echoey Echoes guitar, oscillating synth floating over twinned guitar/keys harmonies with a wry sense of humor: some of the late Billy Cohen’s artsier stuff sounds a lot like this. Flossing with Buddha is a catchy pop song, thinly disguised, followed by the album’s most warmly tuneful number, a diptych titled Message from Uncle Stan. Judicious Britfolk-tinged electric guitar multitracks build toward an anthemic Roye Albrighton-style crescendo, catchily looped phrases over a misty squall where the bass and drums don’t come in for several minutes. The second part layers dirty, distorted guitar and electric piano within tricky tempo changes, swirly organ raising it to a big crescendo; it ends enigmatically, unresolved.

The strangest, and most fascinatingly original track is Saffron Myst, a steady, psychedelic, early 70s soul tune given the art-rock treatment. Clavinova appears over a thinly veiled clave beat through a series of jazz chords that hint at a return to a catchy chorus but never quite go there; the ending is unexpectedly and effectively comedic. The album ends with Aqua Love Ice Cream Delivery Service, another two-parter which goes for a triumphant overture vibe, an artful blend of bubbly sound effects within a maze of slide guitar and crescendoing, whirling keys. It all falls apart in the middle and ends on a surreal note with a brief quote from a Jean-Philippe Rameau baroque sarabande. Moonjune Records, home to all things global and prog, put this out this past spring.

A Killer Live Album from Kelli Rae Powell

More artists should make live albums, and it’s a good thing that Kelli Rae Powell’s latest one is a concert recording. Immortalizing her show in the late winter of 2012 at the Jalopy – Powell’s and every other New Yorker’s favorite oldtime Americana hangout – it’s the devious, ukulele-wielding firecracker singer and retro songwriter at the top of her game. Interestingly, the tracks don’t follow the sequence of songs in the set, at least the second set, from which at least some of these numbers were taken (trying to guess which ones is part of the fun – the place was sold out, but if you weren’t there, you missed a hell of a show). It was fun seeing how much pure sonics could be generated by a simple lineup of Powell on either uke or acoustic guitar, plus her purist bassist husband Jim McNamara, M Shanghai String Band harmonica sorcerer Shaky Dave Pollack, and Matthew Brookshire guesting on vocals on a couple of tracks.

The album, understatedly but meticulously produced by Terry Radigan, opens with Grace, a steadfast tribute to a cigarette-smoking, cocktail-drinking Iowa lady: Powell keeps one of those traditions very much alive. The track titled Summertime here is not the jazz standard but a happily dizzy original, Powell’s narrator stunned and smitten and unselfconsciously touched to find that not everything in the world is grim and dreary. Powell keeps the opiated, dreamy mood going with Sweet Dorina, a “drinkaby” (cross between a drinking song and a lullaby) dedicated to her longtime Jalopy bartendress pal.

The hokum blues-inspired Give Me a Man works on many levels, mostly as a sideways tribute to an honest guy with rocks in his mouth who may not be the world’s biggest charmer, but at least he calls ‘em like he sees ‘em.  Selfish as Fire, a duet with Brookshire, works a ferocious booze-drenched atmosphere much in the same vein as the Pogues’ Fairytale of New York. The band brings it down with the subdued but seductive December and then a tribute to Powell’s Iowa home, The Flood, a wryly aphoristic, pensive ballad.

Piece of You is the last of the sweet ones: from here on, the album grows fangs and won’t let go. The Cowboy Song, a big audience hit, sways along defiantly: the girl in the bar won’t settle for not being taken seriously, and the jokes have as much snarl and bite as chuckles. Bury Me in Iowa City, another pretty somber midwestern nocturne, is followed by Grateful, which seems like a semi-former hellraiser trying to come to terms with her checkered past and possibly less checkered future with mixed results.

The band takes it all the way up at the end. The studio version of Midnight Sleeper Train is the drinkaby to end all drinkabys, but this one is more aggressive and plays up the underlying unease of a woman hellbent on putting a lot of space between her and some bigtime disappointment. Likewise, the album version of Don’t Slow Down, Zachary is all harrowing undercurrent, a band-on-the-road narrative that the girl in the story never wants to see end because she can’t bear to go back to the unnameable place she ostensibly calls home. Here, Powell works the double entendres and puns, and the crowd loves it. She and the band end it with Some Bridges Are Good to Burn, which ends her previous studio album New Words for Old Lullabies on a smoldering note; here, she wrings out every ounce of vengefulness and sings the hell out of it. Powell’s next show is on Sept 21 at 9ish at the Jalopy, of course, opening for Lara Ewen.

The Subtext Screams in Sarah Petite’s High-Voltage Hard Country Songs

Sara Petite‘s case new album Circus Comes to Town was fueled by the loss of her partner and best friend Johnny Kuhlken. Faced with a tragedy like that, some of us retreat from the world, others go off on a long bender, which is what Petite did. Eddie Gore, who produced Petite’s previous album Doghouse Rose, wanted to get her back in the studio fast to help her get back on track, and possibly because he saw that even as she was bouncing off walls, a lot of that energy was being channelled into her creative process. The result is a ferocious, electric hard country album. The band is sensationally good. Ex-Johnny Cash bassist Dave ‘Ro’ Rorick and drummer Rick Lonow – who played on June Carter’s last two albums – team up with Bob Britt on guitars and Ethan Ballinger on acoustic guitar and mandolin. As usual Petite’s songwriting is badass – most of the tracks here are high-voltage honkytonk tunes, and even the slower stuff steers clear of being maudlin.

The first track blasts along with a rich Fender Twin guitar tone and Petite’s sharp, Loretta Lynn-inspired rage and bite. And it’s funny – ” I can still smell her perfume, and I can’t stand the smell of her perfume,” Petite declares. Movin’ On gets a brisk electrified bluegrass shuffle in the same vein as Demolition String Band, right down to the snarling Britt guitar solo. Over a twangy midtempo groove, the aphoristic Barbwire chronicles a woman who’s too damaged to let anybody close to her. The album’s title track sounds like a shuffling rewrite of Mr. Bojangles, but Petite’s this-close-to-completely-falling-apart lyrics pack a wallop:  “You laugh until you start to choke, and you’re choking on this lipstick and rouge, looky here, I’ve come down  with the blues,” she intones, and it only gets more surreal and memorable from there.

Drinkin’ to Remember is actually not about drinking to remember but finding solace in “another bloody mary Monday morning, as dark as it can get.” She follows that with The Master, a blistering, sardonic Texas shuffle about a “lying cheating sonofagun” who still manages to play all the women. The funniest song here is If Momma Ain’t Happy,  which takes an old fashioned country patter song into the hip-hop era.  “The tighter the noose, the higher you sing,” the hen tells the rooster.

Forever Blue has a Townes Van Zandt feel, with its spacious, resonant guitar and pedal steel, a story of loss that works on many levels. The loudest song here is Scarlet Letter, a blast of electric bluegrass about how hard it is to “get away from them wagging tongues” – it sounds like Lorraine Leckie & Her Demons transported to Nashville. The most straight-up rock number, and arguably best song here is Someday I’m Gonna Fly, its defiance building to one of the most goreously anthemic choruses you’ll hear this year. The album ends with its lone death-obsessed track, Ashes, but even there it’s more resolute than resigned: “Live life to its fullest, if not for you then for me,” Petite’s doomed narrator tells the listener. Yikes!  Somebody get this girl a drink and get her back in the studio.

Uncategorizable Noir Jazz Sounds from Ben Goldberg

Clarinetist Ben Goldberg‘s Unfold Ordinary Mind is one of those deliciously dark albums that defies description. Is it punk jazz? Noir cinematics? Free improvisation? It’s all of the above, which makes it unique, and a lot of fun. Imagine guitarist Jack Martin’s Dimestore Dance Band with a three-horn frontline and you’re on the right track. Goldberg writes catchy, uneasy themes which the band – Ellery Eskelin on alto sax, Rob Sudduth on tenor sax, Wilco’s Nels Cline on guitar and Ches Smith on drums – defiantly resist allowing to resolve or settle comfortably into a groove or for that matter any kind of safe place for very long except at the very end. Since there is no bass on the album, Smith drives the music with a more lumbering approach than usual, although Goldberg plays catchy basslines on the contra-alto clarinet – lower than a bass clarinet – on several of the tracks.

Throughout most of the album, Goldberg’s approach is to tease the listener with something gentle and attractive and then slash at it, give it fangs and turn it loose in the opposite direction. So when the opening track, Elliptical, opens as a pretty pastorale, that’s not to be trusted: within a couple of minutes, the band has taken it down the back alley into smirkingly noir early John Zorn/Sexmob/Lounge Lizards territory, Cline’s clenched-teeth, gritty wailing taking it out on a macabre note. Parallelogram hints that it’s going in a klezmer rock direction and then introduces a gorgeous oldschool soul turnaround that the band absolutely refuses to hit head on, an incessant interchange of horns backed by Cline’s red-neon, tremoloing guitar (that’s got to be an old tremolo tube amp with the effect turned up all the way). The guitarist is at the absolute top of his creepy game, echoing Otis Rush as well as Marc Ribot.

XCPF follows the same tangent, an oldschool soul groove that the band won’t play straight, Cline taking it out with a swirling, psychedelic forest of loops and finally a nasty growl. Goldberg then leads the horns through a pensive series of phrases before they launch into I Miss the SLA. Could that be a reference to the Symbionese Liberation Army, the inept group of wannabe terrorists who took socialite heiress Patty Hearst prisoner back in the 70s? And is Eskelin’s gentle phrasing in the midst of the grime and Balkan-tinged grit the heiress getting Stockholm Syndrome, as she eventually did, which got her some time in the joint for her role in the caper?

The trope reappears on Stemwinder, which begins as a warm, nostalgic wee-hours ballad before Cline comes spiraling down like a bird of prey with his talons out, then they vamp it out like a punk version of a 60s Quincy Jones soundtrack piece before jamming on the changes to the Beatles’ She’s So Heavy. Only on the last track, a baroque-tinged pastorale, does Goldberg refrain from killing the lights and leading the crew into the shadows.

Goldberg also has another album out, Subatomic Particle Homesick Blues, which has an all-star cast including Ron Miles on trumpet, Joshua Redman on tenor sax, Devin Hoff on bass and Smith again on drums, and is sort of the reverse image of this one, expanding on the pretty pastoral Americana vein in more vivid depth than this one hints at. And as a bonus, this cd also comes with a poster, a Molly Barker painting of wolves following horses. Who said you can’t have vinyl production values in the digital era?