New York Music Daily

Love's the Only Engine of Survival

Month: September, 2013

An Explosive Debut by Ukrainian Sensation DakhaBrakha at CUNY

Last night Kiev band DakhaBrakha made their US debut at CUNY’s Elebash Hall to a sold-out crowd that screamed for more and practically wouldn’t let them leave the stage. Word is out: this four-piece punk-folk-circus-rock band makes Gogol Bordello look like slow, lazy slugs by comparison. They began and ended the set with wailing, explosively percussive arrangements of Ukrainian folk songs driven by the heavy-artillery thud of singer Olena Tsibulska’s bass drum. Considering how they managed to fill the hall with just their searing, otherworldly four-part harmonies and lots of percussion on several of the songs was impressive, to say the least.

Given the band’s origins in subversive Ukrainian theatre, it’s no surprise that humor is a big part of their act. Singer/percussionist/accordionist Marko Halanevych had the audience in stitches with Baby, his falsetto, half-English, half-Ukrainian parody of schlocky “r&b” radio pop. They put a hip-hop beat on a handful of ancient songs, the surrealism of those mashups enhanced by the keening close harmonies of the vocals and the frequently droning melodies, which gave the songs a menacing edge. Their more lighthearted numbers brought to mind quirk-rockers the Debutante Hour (which might be less unlikely a comparison than you might first think, considering that Maria Sonevytsky from that band is of Ukrainian descent). Cellist Nina Garenetska ran her cello through a series of effects, beginning with a growly distorted tone, then adding delay and reverb for an echoey resonance as she swooped up the scale into witchy, stratospheric harmonics. A couple of long anthems slunk along on a Middle Eastern snakecharmer groove as the voices built to a dark, carnivalesque counterpoint. A couple of other numbers had the repetitive dancefloor thud of Eastern European turbo-folk – but with a heavier bottom end, and real swing from the murky depths of Tsibulska’s drum!

And they’re great musicians. Halanevych and singer Iryna Kovalenko – who also played accordion, piano, jaw harp, and an evilly trilling reed instrument – passed a garmoshka (sort of the Ukrainian equivalent of a bandoneon) back and forth. Everybody drummed at one point or another, an effect that was often as mysterious as it was hypnotically energizing. DakhaBrakha translates from the Ukraininan as “give-and-take,” with all that phrase implies, a good name for a band that works dynamics as artfully as they do. For all the fireworks, there was a lot of subtlety in how they brought their simple, catchy but harmonically-rich melodies up gently and then set them alight with a gleeful grin.

This CUNY concert series is fantastic. They’ve got Malian guitar shredder Vieux Farka Toure (Ali’s kid) here on Oct 29 at 7, then an otherwordly but invigorating bill of music from across the Sephardic diaspora featuring the NY Andalus Ensemble on Nov 5.

Big Sky Music from Tibet

Consider the concept of “big sky music:” vast open spaces inspiring a sense of wonder and possibility but also possibly foreboding, not to mention the feeling of being a very small part of what could be an overwhelmingly larger picture. Like the American plains, Tibet also has big sky music, which is mostly what chanteuse Yungchen Lhamo and pianist Anton Batagov play on their most recent album Tayatha. The instrumentation is simply voice and piano throughout a series of long, expansive, hypnotic pieces – the shortest a tad over seven minutes, the longest clocking in at over sixteen. While sometimes building on folk themes, the music is original, and there’s obviously some improvisation going on. Much of the album also turns out to be a rigorously successful attempt by Batagov to refrain from lapsing into European scales, the result being hypnotic to the extreme as he jams out a single chord, or sticks tightly to a pentatonic Asian scale – and manages to maintain a level of interest or suspense despite the absence of western-style chord changes.

The first track, Good Times Will Come builds off a catchy lefthand piano hook, like a Rachmaninoff prelude – it’s more European nocturne than Tibetan trance music. Lhamo varies her voice from high and minutely ornamented to low and suspenseful with a hint of throat-singing. Medicine Buddha is more mantra-like with hints of a country dance; the contrast between Lhamo’s soaring crescendo and Bagatov’s steadiness is cool. Flying Dakini works that same methodical/emotive dichotomy, followed by the aptly petulant, nine-minute Ungrateful Child.

Your Kindness, the most epic number here, carries a series of dynamic shifts through a long one-chord jam up to an anthemic swell, and then back and forth. White Palace, the closest thing to a straight-up rock song here, artfully blends neoromanticism and Asian piano tonalities underneath Lhamo’s intricately ornamented, microtonal inflections. The final track, My Mother’s Words begins with a looser feel than the rest of the album but comes together forcefully, with an almost music-box counterpoint between Lhamo’s vocals and Batagov’s upper-register pointillisms. Is this folk music? Sort of. Indie classical? Maybe. New age? Not really – it’s too interesting, although it will probably appeal to that crowd as well as fans of the more contemplative side of Asian and Indian music.

Duskcore Stripped to Its Acoustic Roots

Niger desert blues band Etran Finatawa’s latest album, The Sahara Sessions, was recorded deep in the desert in their native land. It’s an acoustic album, an intriguing look back at the roots of duskcore in the 70s Tuareg cassette underground – although the recording quality of this one is digital-crisp. Ironically, while it’s been marketed as a jam record, it seems more focused on songwriting than improvisation. Is that because of how desert blues has evolved, with more of a reliance on the timbral nuances of electric guitars to make the solos interesting? If that’s true, it at least somewhat explains what the band does here: what soloing there is tends to be a lot more terse than the slowly unwinding, exploratory grooves the band is best known for.

One thing that differentiates Etran Finatawa from many of their duskcore compatriots is that the band has three distinctive songwriters. Alhousseini Anivolla’s songs tend to be the most anthemic; his fellow guitarist Goumar Abdoul Jamil’s tend to be quieter and more pensive. Bammo Agonla has a high-energy, punchy, more folk-oriented style to match his piercing voice. The band sing in Tamashek and other area dialects. Their lyrics frequently reference current unease in the region, from the bouncy Matinfa (What Is This For?), addressing the spillover of violence from neighboring Mali, to the darkly bluesy An Mataf Germanawen (Unity), the briskly purposeful Toumast (Identity) and Issuad (Let’s Get Together), a haphazardly spontaneous traditional song.

As is the band’s custom, tempos range from straight-up 4/4, to the camelwalking sway that typifies Saharan music, to considerably more tricky and polyrhythmic. The separation of the tracks, not to mention the stripped-down quality of the playing, enhances the contrast between the guitars, whether gently vamping, interpolating dancing accents or long, languid phrases. Hypnotic one-chord verses turn around on unexpectedly rapid successions of chords once some of these songs reach the chorus; others simply sway along and work a single chord for all the nuance the band can squeeze out of it, reflectively and methodically. This album makes a good companion to the recent Super 11 reissue of pre-electric Saharan sounds, as well as much of the kind of stuff you find at Awesome Tapes from Africa.

Trippy, Quirky Icelandic Rock from Mum

It’s tempting to say something like, “Oh, those crazy Icelanders, with their funny fractured English, one minute they’re all about weird sound effects, the next they’re doing all this somber gazing-at-the-ocean ambient stuff.” Obviously, that’s a stereotype and it’s true less often than not. But Icelandic band Mum’s new album Smilewound is a lot like that. The album title is as enigmatic as the music often is- is “wound” a noun or a verb? It could go either way, through the group’s icily trippy blend of quirky chamber pop and trip-hop.

Radiohead is the obvious influence, but where Radiohead uses electronics for the sake of menace, Mum sprinkle them throughout their songs with a grin. Some of these songs sound like Tom Tom Club with more modern toys; others evoke chamber pop bands like Edison Woods, but with more of a techy feel. “We’re all toothwheels in the mouth machine,” one of the women in the band announces in the first song, a trip-hop number anchored on the low end by bass synth, pizzicato strings dancing overhead. By contrast, Underwater Snow builds from simple, resonant, minimalist piano chords to a surreal blend of C&W balladry, trip-hop and chamber pop, with some droll, bubbly Baba O’Reilly synth thrown in toward the end.

When Girls Collide builds from a mechanical dancefloor thud to a more anthemic dreampop swirl; likewise, Slow Down juxtaposes lushness against minimalism, dreamy vocals against a steady trip-hop pulse. Candlestick starts out like a video game theme and then introduces a series of truly bizarre electronic percussion effects, like a 21st century Spike Jones. Then they bring hints of menace back with One Smile and its music-box theme. Then Eternity Is the Wait Between Breaths takes the music box theme and weird faux gamelan percussion in a more surrealistically comedic direction.

The Colorful Stabwound sounds like mid-80s Cure (the darker side of that band, anyway) taken ten years forward in time with coy female vocals. Sweet Impressions evokes Clare & the Reasons with its lively, whimsical tempo shifts and enigmatic lyrics: “screaming through a grassy meadow” ??? Likewise, Time to Scream and Shout isn’t exactly what the title suggests: it’s a lullaby (and possibly a reference to the disastrous Wall Street-engineered run on the nation’s currency back in 2008). The album ends with Whistle (with Kylie), more of a straight-up pop song than anything else here, with an attractively lush, baroque-tinged string outro. Sometimes funny, sometimes pensive and always psychedelic, the album gives your mind plenty of places to drift to.

Sarah Alden Puts Out a Darkly Sizzling String Band Album

On one hand, Sarah Alden’s new Fists of Violets is sort of the new Luminescent Orchestrii album. The co-founder of that dark, sometimes carnivalesque Balkan ensemble has her bandmates, bassist Benjy Fox-Rosen and multi-instrumentalists Rima Fand and Sxip Shirey, alongside her in addition to first-call accordionist Patrick Farrell and Nation Beat drummer Scott Kettner. On the other hand, this album puts the violinist front and center on a searingly diverse mix of original and traditional songs and instrumentals from two continents. Alden is one of those rare musicians who can play pretty much any style of music and channel any emotion she wants; she embraces Americana as vividly and expertly she does Eastern European sounds, all the while adding her own signature, counterintuitive style. That eclecticism extends to her songwriting and choice of cover material as well. The album is full of surprises: Alden does just about everything differently than you would expect.

It begins with a surprisingly funky take of the old Appalachian ballad Dink’s Tune and ends with the coy, innuendo-fueled accordion waltz Come Take a Trip on My Airship. One of the best and most original songs here is the title track, acoustic Balkan punk rock with Alden and Fand’s violins playing Philip Glass-like broken chords over noirish changes. They follow that with Aunt Viola’s Waltz, a starkly beautiful, pulsing, elegaic, Appalachian-tinged homage to the woman who first taught Alden the violin.

Ida Red, a brisk western swing stomp, brings to mind the Knitters (X doing their oldtime country music side project). Other Balkan bands might likely rock the hell out of Niz Banju Idem, but Alden and her crew attack it with restraint and by doing that make it all the more plaintive and otherworldly, capping it off with a long, wailing Farrell accordion solo. Alden’s unaffectedly bittersweet maple-amber voice brings out every bit of creepy southern gothic apocalypticism in their slowly shuffling take of When Sorrows Encompass Me Round. Then she cuts loose on the oldtimey noir stoner swing tune Willie the Weeper, the most carnivalesque song here, Shirey’s tremolo-picking on the banjo leading up to a long, ominously hypnotic outro. Alden turns in a a jaunty voice-and-piano duo version of Old Man Moon and follows that with the sizzling noir bluegrass romp Ruby Honey Are You Mad at Me, Shirey’s steel guitar spiraling out of the sky in one of the album’s more memorably dramatic moments. There are too many other moments like that to count here: this is one of 2013’s best.

New Country Rehab Make Themselves Heard at Hill Country

Hill Country on 26th Street is sort of the Manhattan version of Radegast Hall, if you switch out the beer and brats for barbecue. The roar of the tourists there is usually pretty much the same, which is a pity since the owners of both establishments have great taste in music: hot jazz and the occasional Balkan band in Williamsburg, country and Americana roots in the Flatiron District. But tonight at Hill Country was a pleasant surprise, especially considering that New Country Rehab were playing songs from their excellent new album Ghost of Your Charms there. And that’s where the two venues differ: for the Williamsburg/Bushwick tourist and permanent-tourist classes, every day is Saturday. In Manhattan, apparently, the tourists stay put on Sundays. So the Toronto band didn’t have to compete with screaming rugrats and their parents.

Frontman/violinist John Showman intimated between songs that they’re pretty adventurous when it comes to booking themselves into venues across the continent. A recent gig at an Idaho biker bar, he explained, began when he went to the bar and the bartender pulled a seven-inch knife on him. The bar had only two taps. “Which beer do you like more?” the knife-wielding bartender asked him. Showman, being Canadian and diplomatic, replied, “I like ’em both.” The bartender then put down the knife and poured Showman a beer from each tap – for free. The conversation then continued – presumably sans knife – as the bartender first regaled Showman with tales of his love of violence, ending by taking off several articles of clothing, finishing by suggesting that Showman feel his “six inches of scar tissue.” After the gig, Showman went to the club manager to collect his pay. Wondering what was up with the knife and the scar tissue, etc., he asked the manager about the guy. “Aw, you shouldn’t listen to my father,” the manager laughed. So Showman got a couple of free beers, something for playing, and also a song out of the night.

That song was Lizzy Dying of a Broken Heart, a surreal tale about a – you guessed it – frustrated former army instructor slowly losing it as a venue owner. It’s a story so surreal that it hardly seems possible it could be based in fact – except that it is. In concert, this time out the band played up their rock side more than their country roots, bassist Ben Whiteley and drummer Roman Tome hitting a laid-back Grateful Dead groove early on before doing a Hank Williams number in 5/4 time – and it worked. It was interesting watching guitarist Anthony DaCosta play rock, considering that he’s best known for his flashy bluegrass and country chops. But he turned out to be good at it, and a lot noisier than anticipated, going back to his amp with his hollowbody for the occasional acidic wash of feedback. Showman’s purist, terse licks – including a couple of brief duels with the guitar – fit the music, although he surprised the crowd (or at least somebody in the crowd) when he’d take the fiddle off his shoulder and play it standing up, like a Middle Eastern kamancheh or similar instrument. The best song of the night was Rollin’, a slightly subdued, understatedly venomous southwestern gothic stroll; the most upbeat was a lively love song whose message was “please don’t die.” The persistent darknesss in Showman’s songs is just one of the things that differentiates this band from the legions of hillbillies drinking from the well of four hundred years of Americana.

Matthew Grimm Gets the Crowd at Rodeo Bar to Shut Up, Sort Of

Rodeo Bar on a Friday night is not the first place in New York that you might think of for music that inspires close listening. And it wouldn’t be accurate to say that Matthew Grimm got the crowd there last night to shut up. But he did he did get them to quiet down some, and not by shushing them from the stage. He did it with his lyrics. “Nobody wants to hear a song about a little black dog,” he drawled early in the set, but an awful lot of people in the packed house did. That song, from Grimm’s lyrically rich and frequently hilarious new album Songs in the Key of Your Face, is less about the dog than it is about the kind of people who believe in a very magical furry friend who can do things like make those people immortal. “I haven’t fact-checked all of this, but it’s better than the world we know,” the Iowa songwriter deadpanned as he punched out chords on his Telecaster, backed by a tight, excellent pickup band including Butchers Blind‘s Pete Mancini on lead guitar, Mick Hargreaves on bass and a solid, four-on-the-floor drummer (was that Dave Stengel? From the far wall facing the bar, it was hard to see).

Grimm got his start in New York fronting the Hangdogs, who were playing one of their more-or-less annual reunion shows afterward (an only-in-New-York clusterfuck of bad trains, heavy pregaming and a long trek home afterward nixed any possibility of a review of that show – but here’s an idea of how it might have gone). That crew began in the mid-90s as a high-voltage bar band and ended more or less about ten years later, after the release of Wallace ’48, a brilliant, savagely political Americana rock record. Hangdogs shows were always a hang, usually a late one, Grimm assaulting the crowd with one-liners that got funnier and more vicious as the night wore on. This time out Grimm barely spoke to the crowd, obviously trying to pack as much of a musical wallop into his set as he could considering that the Rodeo usually doesn’t even have opening bands.

He opened with the scampering, anthemic Woody Guthrie’s 33rd Resolution, whose singalong tagline is “Wake up and fight!” Grimm’s songs can be witheringly cynical, but this time out there was a gleam in his eye: this is a guy whose time has come, and he knows it, and he’s been waiting for it since long before the Occupy movement existed. You wouldn’t think that a Rodeo Bar crowd would lean in to catch every line in a slow, determined polemic like The Enemy, but they did. It’s an illustration of how those in power play the divide and conquer game, pitting private sector employees against those on the public payroll. That Grimm could take such a prosaic, never mind divisive topic and make genuine, no-nonsense rock out of it speaks to his ability as a tunesmith and wordsmith. In front of a Manhattan audience who’ve been waiting to see the death of the despised Bloomberg political empire finally appear on the horizon, Grimm reflected a sense of triumph and renewal.

He brought up a pedal steel player to add some flickering honkytonk licks on a resolute cover of Townes Van Zandt’s Pancho and Lefty; later in the set, Mancini’s sinuous lead lines took centerstage on a smartly edited version of the Dire Straits depression epic Telegraph Road. There were funny songs from the new album – Back Booth, a wry reflection on a hookup that never happened, and Go the Fuck Home Mindy, with its LMFAO annoying drunk girl – and the unselfconsciously hopeful One Big Union, a theme song for a real labor union somewhere in the heartland. But the best song of the night, and arguably the most harrrowing one played in a venue anywhere in New York in the past year, was the closer, West Allis. It’s a shuffling highway rock tune about a guy who leaves his job – it’s not clear whether he’s retiring or he’s been laid off – then drives home, forwards his mail, pays the bills and shoots himself. Grimm’s vocals throughout the set had been pretty matter-of-fact, but finally, at the end of the song, he cut loose. “Four years, you think someone might have noticed something gone,” he railed: see, the guy’s Wisconsin neighbors didn’t see him around much, so he wasn’t missed in “four years of unshoveled sidewalks and unmowed lawns.” Being part of society didn’t seem to matter much to him – or did it? “He made his choice, we make ours, the world endures, “Grimm intoned. But,

Maybe you’re your brother’s keeper not by code or creed or canon
But a simple hope that someone will be yours

Mancini ended the song with a single one of the plaintive guitar licks that wind up the album version. After that, even a Hangdogs show would have been anticlimactic.

Kendall Meade’s Mascott Bring Their Purist Tunesmithing to the Mercury

Since her days with the vastly underrated Juicy in the mid/late 90s, Kendall Meade has been a world-class tunesmith: we’re talking Lennon/McCartney, Holland/Dozier/Holland, Aimee Mann-class hooks. Since then she’s played with Helium, the Spinanes and earlier this year in a memorably low-key, more Americana-flavored collaboration with Varnaline’s Anders Parker. In between, off and on, she’s led the irresistibly catchy Mascott. The band name has a backstory as endearing as Meade’s tunes: as her family’s youngest child, her nickname was “Mascot,” and she kept it. Her latest Mascott gig is at the Mercury on Sept 22 at 7:30 PM; cover is ten bucks. There’s also a new Mascott ep out from Jennifer O’Connor’s insurgent Kiam Records, and it’s as catchy as you would expect.

The first track is the bittersweet but ultimately optimistic Cost/Amount. “I’ve seen 52 sadder ways to spend a Saturday,” Meade muses as it rises from a summery pop pulse to a tremolo-picked dreampop swirl on the bridge. Meade has always been a good singer, but she’s never sounded more nuanced than she is here. The way she hits the high note as the chorus of the second track, Our Life, kicks in will give you goosebumps. Underneath the shiimering warmth, it’s third-generation, pulsing Velvets rock. “You listen to the dark side of the moon and I’ll paint the clouds,” she cajoles. The third track, By the Book works a Penny Lane bounce with electric piano and guitar and some droll accents from bass and keys; the final track is Kirsty MacColl’s They Don’t Know About Us, reinvented in much of the same vein as the Velvets’ Sunday Morning. Purist pop chops, wry sense of humor, same old same old: what a fun band!

Arifa Opens This Year’s New York Gypsy Festival on a Haunting, Eclectic Note

Arifa take austere, often haunting Turkish folk themes and build them into sweeping instrumentals with elements of classical and film music and jazz as well. They open this year’s New York Gypsy Festival auspiciously at around 7:30 PM on Sept 19 at Drom. If their new ep Anatolian Alchemy is any indication, this individualistic acoustic instrumental ensemble threatens to upstage the reliably exhilarating New York Gypsy All-Stars, who follow them on the bill. Cover is just $10; it’s an inexpensive and potentially spine-tingling way to kick off one of New York’s most reliably eclectic and exciting annual music festivals.

The ep opens auspiciously with Maktub, rising out of ominously lingering clarinet to a thicket of polyrhythms and then alternates with droning, murky atmospherics lowlit with eerily glimmering piano. Red Ink is the catchiest and most cinematic piece here, a hauntingly bittersweet melody that rises to a sweeping, enigmatic theme that winds down to plaintive piano and oud solos. The title track has an epic sweep, the piano rippling behind a spacious oud theme to open it, followed by a gorgeously brooding clarinet melody that alternates with pulsing, dancing interludes and a sizzling, spiraling piano solo to bring it to a peak right before the end. If this is any indication, the concert should be amazing.

Fiery Violin-Driven New Country Rehab Bring Their Politically Aware Sounds to NYC

Toronto band New Country Rehab are one of the most unique, instantly recognizable bands around. Their latest album Ghost of Your Charms blends rustic Americana with eclectic string-driven rock that careens from Nashville gothic to more Celtic-tinged tunes with layers of strings that sometimes peak out at orchestral levels. Frontman John Showman isn’t just an excellent fiddler (and reputedly more than lives up to his name onstage), he’s a hell of a storyteller with a spot-on worldview. Like Larry Kirwan of Black 47 – a band this one often evokes – Showman’s a big-picture guy with a similarly bleak sense of humor. The band – also including bassist Ben Whiteley, drummer Roman Tome and up-and-coming guitarist Anthony DaCosta – bring their reputation for incendiary live shows to Hill Country on Sept 15 at 8 PM, where you can see them for free.

They put new blood into some old themes: murder ballads, robber ballads, lost-love laments and portraits of life among the down-and-out. Empty Room Blues sounds like the Pogues with a Canadian accent. The slow ballad Image of Me has a punchline straight out of vintage Ray Price or George Jones. There are also a couple of more mellow tracks here, one that echoes the Grateful Dead in acoustic mode, another that brings to mind more recent Springsteen. But it’s the darkest stuff that packs a wallop.

Back in Time builds from an almost trip-hop sway to more straightforward and rustic as Showman uneasily contemplates the ravages of getting old. Too Many Parties and Too Many Pals, which is part southern rock and part spaghetti western, offers a surreal and unexpectedly wise account of a hooker on trial. The political songs here are even better, beginning with Luxury Motel, a savage look at native disenfranchisement in third world tourist hotspots:

You stay by the boardwalk that covers the sands
They hauled in to cover the mangrove stands
There’s a family that used to fish by the shore
Now they suffer the drunks in their convenience store
The young boy who splashes in the runoff canal
Can’t swim in the ocean, he’s trespassing now

Lost Highway isn’t the Hank Williams classic but an original, rising to almost chamber-metal levels as Showman builds a fire-and-brimstone narrative about karmic payback. The southwestern gothic ballad Rollin’ starts out like The Fever and turns into a venomous 99-percenter anthem: “Oh Mr. Sprat, lick your platter clean, douse old Jack with gasoline and watch the night explode…” Lizzy Dying of a Broken Heart chronicles the sad, surreal life of an army officer slowly losing it in his post-Vietnam career as the owner of a music venue. The best song here is The Bank and the Army, putting a vividly aphoristic update on a familiar folk theme. Thousands of songs from around the world tell the tale of an evil king and his army colluding with the moneylenders: Showman relates the story through the eyes of a drunken war vet whose family farm has been foreclosed. But there’s a big, unexpected payoff at the end of the song. It’s too good to spoil here: no doubt they’ll play it live at Hill Country.