New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Month: March, 2014

Jenifer Jackson Brings Her Austin Americana Sophistication to the Rockwood

Purist psychedelic pop polymath Jenifer Jackson released her full-length debut, Slowly Bright at the very end of the 90s, a mix of bossa nova, Bacharach and the Beatles that remains a landmark in that genre. But even on that album, there was a little Americana. In the years since, Jackson has ventured further into chamber pop and jazz, but the roots of those styles always had a pull on her. A move to Austin and a new cast of musicians to rival any group she’s ever worked with springboarded her latest shift deeper into vintage C&W sounds, TX Sunrise. It’s the prolific tunesmith/chanteuse’s eleventh release and one of her best, a clinic in how to make an album in a bedroom (or a living room) that sounds like it was recorded at Carnegie Hall. The sonics are so lush in places that it’s easy to forget that the instrumentation is practically all acoustic. She’s playing songs from it at the big room at the Rockwood on March 26 at 9 PM.

There’s never been anything quite like this before. A string section holds much of the sound aloft (multi-instrumentalist Kullen Fuchs gets credit for much of that), yet it remains raw and close to the ground, more like early ELO doing country than an enveloping, early 60s Owen Bradley countrypolitan production. Case in point: the upbeat country-chamber duet Paint It Gold. And the songwriting is classic Jenifer Jackson, straightforward and disarmingly direct yet constantly changing shape. The arrangements and musicianship have a lot to do with that: within the space of a single verse, there could be an acoustic guitar mingling with the strings, then a dobro solo handing off to Jackson’s own honkytonk piano (!), then the accordion picking up the tune and deftly passing it back to the dobro. That’s a play-by-play of what happens on Heart with a Mind of Its Own, a co-write with Dickie Lee Erwin, that could be a Kitty Wells classic from 1956 or so.

The album’s most down-home flavored song is Your Sad Teardrops, a sardonic honkytonk kissoff anthem with another deliciously spot-on saloon piano break from Jackson. The title track adds fluttery, rippling, psychedelic touches to a warmly evocative Tex-Mex shuffle. Likewise, Jackson’s easygoing but insistent acoustic guitar contrasts with the lullaby ambience of the accordion and string section on Easy to Live, which could be an outtake from her brilliant 2007 live-in-the-studio album The Outskirts of a Giant Town. When Evening Light Is Low evokes a ballad from that album, The Missing Time, its balmy nocturnal milieu grounded by a persistent unease, something that recurs again and again throughout many of the songs here.

As it does on Ballad of Time Gone By, which opens as a gentle country waltz, Jackson’s voice soaring up to some spine-tingling high notes before descending back to earth – and suddenly what could be bittersweet nostalgia becomes a distantly aching lament. The way she slowly and methodically unveils her images on the understatedly plaintive but driving anthem In Summer, from furtive animals on the lawn to a menacing sunset milieu, is viscerally haunting.

Much as an often surreal humor spices the arrangements, there’s a lingering sadness in much of her work, and that comes to the forefront in the best songs here. She’s done Nashville gothic memorably before; this time, she goes into southwestern gothic for On My Mind, with its spaghetti western horns, bluesy cello and accordion. Same deal with Picture of May, a creepy bolero that another singer might do luridly, but Jackson maxes out the menace with her dreamy delivery as the images grow more enigmatic and ominous. All Around builds a mood of quiet despair via a wintry seaside tableau set to flinty, anthemic backbeat rock that wouldn’t be out of place in the Steve Wynn catalog. And the most shattering of all the tracks is White Medicine Cloud, a bitter, war-torn lament driven by Jackson’s foreboding tom-tom work: the portait of a herd of buffalo reaching to comfort a newborn calf who is very unlike them is genuinely heartwrenching. As is the somber trumpet line that returns the song from reverie to sobering reality. Count this multi-faceted masterpiece as one of the very best albums of 2014 so far, up there with Rosanne Cash’s The River & the Thread, Karla Moheno‘s Time Well Spent and Marissa Nadler‘s July. It’s been a good year for women artists, hasn’t it?

Advertisements

The Hot Club of Cowtown: Sizzling Chops, Soulful Playing

The Hot Club of Cowtown‘s name pretty much says it all. Over the years, they’ve put a jaunty Djangoesque jolt into western swing. Their latest album, Rendezvous in Rhythm finds the trio going deeper into the Romany side of their music than ever before, with rewarding results. Otherwise, the interplay between Whit Smith’s guitar and Elana James’ violin is as lively and bracing as always, and the personalities haven’t changed:  Smith the suave crooner and James the coy and often devious jazzkitten, with Jake Erwin providing a resolute, rock-solid foundation on bass. They’re at Subculture on April 2 at 8 PM; $20 advance tix are recommended.

The songs are equal part sizzle and soul, perfectly encapsulized by the album’s opening track, a version of the old Russian folk song Dark Eyes that nonchalantly speeds up until the band essentially comes full circle, guitar eventually giving way to shivery violin.The rest of the songs are a mix of mostly familiar hot jazz standards along with a handful of lesser-known tunes, all rearranged with the band’s edgy panache. A low-key take of I’m in the Mood for Love is the most traditional of those numbers. Melancholy Baby gets a slow, comfortable intro and then some snazzily ornamented violin phrasing. James sings Crazy Rhythm with a Prohibition-era sass, Smith’s guitar taking the song forward about thirty years before another goosebump-inducing violin solo.

Which came first: Til There Was You, or If I Had You? That’s the question raised by the band’s version of the latter, James’ precise, breathy delivery bringing to mind Meg Reichardt of Les Chauds Lapins. The Continental, a tune for all the cutters on the dancefloor, contrasts soaring violin with the guitar’s mutedly flurrying, swinging pulse.

Sweet Sue Just You gets a bouncy swing treatment where Smith sounds like he’s about to jump out of his shoes before James introduces a comforting calm on the second verse. A midtempo take of I’m Confessin has the guitar artfully mimicking the violin’s eerily shimmery, insistently staccato lines. James sings Slow Boat to China with the sly determination of a woman hell-bent on a hookup, the guitar and then the vocals really picking it up as it winds out – she distinguishes herself not only as an imaginative, counterintuitive violinist but also as a singer here. Sunshine of Your Smile is the closest thing here to the Texas/Oklahoma swing that the band made a name themselves with.

There are a couple of Al Jolson songs here: Avalon, a Romany jazz take on roaring 20s vaudeville pop, with a characteristically spiraling guitar solo as the high point, and Back in Your Backyard, with its tight violin/guitar harmonies. And the two strongest tracks might be the Django covers. Lots of bands do Minor Swing, or for that matter, a lot of familiar Django Reinhardt songs with a frantic, uptight beat, but these folks swing the hell out of the song, the swirls and restlessness of the violin handing off elegantly to Smith’s snarling, spiky chordal attack. And the minor blues Douce Ambiance is more like more Ambiance Amère, James’ violin bringing in a welcome, raw, chromatically-fueled intensity as the band races through to an abrupt, cold ending. Who is the audience for this? It’s more straight-up jazz-oriented than the rest of the band’s catalog, but it’s just as accessible and tuneful. This band has come a long way since the days back in the 90s and early zeros when their usual stop in Manhattan was Rodeo Bar.

A Brilliant, Intense, Eclectic Live Album by Isle of Klezbos

Strange as this is to say in New York in 2014, in some circles, just the idea of an all-female klezmer band is still pretty radical. Put allusions to women loving women in the band name and the picture grows more interesting. Add to that the intoxicating mix of a hundred years worth of classic and original klezmer, latin, jazz and film music that this shapeshifting, jam-oriented band plays, and you have one of New York’s most exciting groups in any style. Isle of Klezbos have an exhilarating new album, Live from Brooklyn, recorded mostly in concert at Brooklyn College last year, and an album release show coming up on April 6 at 7:30 PM at Joe’s Pub. Tix are $14 and still available as of today.

Reduced to most basic terms, this is minor key party music at its most deliriously fun and virtuosic. The concert opens with a brief, blistering take of the 1932 Yiddish film theme Uncle Moses’ Wedding Dance, Debra Kreisberg’s whirling clarinet against Pam Fleming’s more resonant trumpet in counterpoint to a surprise ending. By the time the song’s over, it’s obvious that the all-female shtick is just that: the women in this band are world-class players. They get plaintive and haunting on the hundred-year-old diptych that follows, singer Melissa Fogarty’s voice soaring through the first section with a wounded vibrato before the band hits a dancing drive on the second, drummer Eve Sicular’s vaudevillian accents and offbeats livening the groove in tandem with Saskia Lane’s terse bass pulse while Fleming and Kreisberg revel in wickedly tight harmonies.

A Glezele Yash – a drinking song first recorded in the Soviet Union in 1961 and penned by a World War II battlefield hero imprisoned in the gulag ten years previously – is another showcase for Fogarty’s pyrotechnics. Shoko Nagai – one of New Yorok’s most individualistic and intense performers on the avant garde side of jazz – dazzles with her glimmering, darkly neoromantic and blues-tinged piano on Noiresque, a bracing latin- and Middle Eastern-tinted theme by Kreisberg, Sicular shifting seamlessly between waltz time and a swing jazz groove. After that, Weary Sun Tango, a hi-de-ho Boulevard of Broken Dreams style noir piece originally dating from early 1930s Poland, makes a good segue, Nagai switching back to lush accordion lines.

Fleming delivers a long, richly suspenseful Miles Davis-esque solo against Sicular’s ominously boomy pulse on the Middle Eastern-flavored Revery in Hijaz, Nagai’s hard-hitting piano crescendo handing off to stately, lushly intertwined trumpet and clarinet as it winds out. The trumpeter – who famously served as a third of reggae legend Burning Spear’s all-female Burning Brass – also contributes the reggae-klezmer tune Mellow Manna, a showcase for deviously spot-on Rasta riffage and riddims from the whole band, notably Sicular.

Songwise, the drummer contributes her first-ever original composition, East Hapsburg Waltz, a cinematic mini-epic that shifts from a wistful sway to more dramatically orchestrated permutations, through ominous chromatic vamping, more vivid neoromantic piano from Nagai and a big crescendo that Fleming finally takes over the edge before they bring it back down again. The audience agrees that it’s a showstopper.

The triptych that follows that is a medley that both this band and their sister unit, Metropolitan Klezmer (with whom they share members) often play live. Nagai kicks it off, brushing and rustling inside the piano in a fair approximation of George Crumb, before she goes deep into the murk. That leads into a cautious, bracing minor key tune, Fleming out front, segueing into an animatedly blithe version of the venerable Molly Picon hit Abi Gezunt with an absolutely sultry vocal from Fogarty. They close it out with a few animated bars of Klezmerengue, a mashup of popular vaudeville and Dominican themes.

The quietest song on the album is When Gomer Met Molly, a moody, rather sad, wordless ballad written by film composer Earle Hagen for an episode of the old 60s sitcom Gomer Pyle, USMC featuring Picon in one of her occasional rent-a-yenta cameos. The album closes with a live-in-the-studio take of the album’s second number, a nod to klezmer’s somber roots with stark viola and resonant trombone from guests Karen Waltuch and Reut Regev. The album comes with fascinating liner notes that trace the origins of these tunes along with how the band was able to track them down: it’s as rich in history as it is in emotion, energy and tunefulness.

The Foxx Reinvent a Classic CBGB-Era Sound

The Foxx play an edgy, distinctively New York flavored style of powerpop that’s a dead ringer for what was happening at CBGB around 1978. At that point, new wave was still in its infancy, but glam was still fresh in everybody’s mind and some people, notably Lou Reed, were still playing it. That’s where the Foxx picks up. They’ve got a couple of albums up at Bandcamp: their most recent one, Lila, as well as their ep Born Tonite, recorded in 2009, a free download that you should grab immediately if this kind of stuff is your thing. The Foxx are at Death by Audio on March 26 at around 10 for a $7 cover.

Frontwoman Juliet Swango sings with a Chrissie Hynde seductiveness over an early Motown-style electric piano riff and Tim Cyster’s growly guitar on the ep’s title track, her deliciously swirly organ solo leading back into the stomp. Wanting Only You pairs Cyster’s Stonesy chords against Swango’s lush organ and quirky Missing Persons-esque vocals: they rip through it in two minutes on the nose.

With its darkly intricate interweave of guitar and keys, the artsy anthem Black Rainbow gives Swango a launching pad for some powerful, dramatic vocals in the same vein as Vera Beren. Waiting in the Dark bridges the gap between oldschool 70s soul music and gritty powerpop, with the album’s most sarcastic lyric. The final cut, Velvet Helmet layers Swango’s elegantly echoey Rhodes piano over a tense groove from bassist Zac Webb and drummer Jill McArthur up to a towering, anthemic chorus. With Swango’s creepy organ and practically operatic vocals as it rises, it’s the most menacing track here. .

The more recent release brings more of an anthemic C&W flavor into the mix: Swango distinguishes herself by writing and singing in a country vernacular without getting all cheesy or faking a southern accent. Standout track: Don’t Start Blaming Your Heart, a big anthem midway through the album.

Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars Bring Their Global Reggae/Afropop Vision to the Apollo

Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars are one of this era’s most authentic feel-good stories. Emerging from hellish transit camps in the wake of widespread terror in their native land, they’ve become stars of the global jamband circuit. They’re a sensationally good roots reggae band. They also have an affinity for upbeat, hypnotic, jangly, guitar-driven West African flavored pop, if that style isn’t as interesting. And they have a new album, Libation, and another marathon tour in the works. They’ll be at the Apollo Theatre on April 5, with Senegalese griot trio Les Fréres Guissé opening at 8 PM, and charismatic Malian chanteuse Fatoumata Diawara also on the bill; $25 tix avail. through the World Music Institute are your best deal.

The first of the new album’s reggae tunes, Can’t Make Me Lonely reminds of early 70s Jamaican harmony groups like the Mighty Diamonds but with digital production. And it’s got the first of several absolutely delicious guitar solos, a simple, cascading soul progression played by Ashade Pearce, who next turns in a hauntingly lingering solo in the pensive minor-key sufferah’s anthem It’s So Sorry.

Rich but Poor, which contemplates poverty in a world rich in natural resources, gets a brisk ska beat and some otherworldly vocal harmonies that wouldn’t be out of place in a song by an early 70s art-rock band like Nektar. Producer Chris Velan adds all kinds of neat touches throughout the album, particularly some roller-rink organ on a couple of the pop tunes and  surreal clavinova on this track alongside Pearce’s intense, resonant lines in the snarling, politically-fueled Manjalagi (Leonian vernacular for “gimme”).

Likewise, Treat You Right contrasts smooth and smoky textures from organ and guitars, with a gorgeously spiraling, spiky Pearce solo as its centerpiece. And the band adds a jaunty calypso vibe to No Feel Bad O, whose message is “Don’t kill or screw your neighbor.” Most of the Afropop stuff follows a she-done-me-wrong theme that often jars with the blithe, happy chime of the music as it vamps along. And the opening track sends out a firm message: “Don’t dis us, we’re the All-Stars!”

Imharhan Bring Their Hypnotically Intense, Relevant Malian Desert Rock Jams to Littlefield

Timbuktu-based dusckcore band Imharhan differentiate themselves from the rest of their hypnotic desert brethren by way of frontman Mohammed Issa’s brightly incisive, even aggressive lead guitar style. Among practitioners of assouf, ie. so-called “desert blues,” Niger-born guitar star Bombino‘s work comes to mind. Imharhan also have an alter ego, Tartit, where the band, joined by a choir of women, transforms itself into an acoustic act playing ancient traditional tunes, the roots of Issa’s gleaming, guitar-fueled anthems. Imharhan’s latest album, Akal Warled (“Alien Land” in Tamasheq) is out, and they’re playing Littlefield at around 9 on March 23.

Issa’s distinctive, kinetic lines immediately take centerstage on the first number, Aicha Talamomt, ringing out with precise hammer-ons and sputtery but resonant accents over a snaky camelwalk groove. Although Imharhan’s music is typically hypnotic and reflective, this is one of the band’s more sonically adventurous, rock-oriented tracks: the rhythm guitarist plays through a wah pedal, and Issa’s crescendoing attack is as close to western stadium rock as you’ll ever find in this otherwise psychedelic, slinky style of music.

The album’s title track reflects on the angst of an exile, a bitter commentary on the ongoing civil war in Mali, but more animatedly than you might expect. It coalesces into a deceptively brisk shuffle that gets more careening as it goes on, winding up with a lushly intertwined twin-guitar duel that sounds almost like a bagpipe at full power. The following track, Amassakoul in Tenere is more terse, built around a wickedly catchy raga-ish guitar riff as it illustrates the life of a nomad, someone who was born to wander.

Ehala Damohele, a tribute to the resilience of women, works an amped-up, circular Tuareg folk theme. The matter-of-factly swaying Taliat Malat bears the most resemblance to current-day desert rock, as popularized by Tinariwen (who also happen to be in town, on March 23 and 24 at Brooklyn Bowl) and Etran Finatawa. Taliat Ta Silkjourout –  “beautiful girl across the oasis,” essentially – sets Issa’s long, soaring, subtly crescendoing lead lines over calm but bubbly polyrhythms, a hypnotic interweave of guitars, bass and percussion.

Tarha Tizar – meaning “love is the reason”- has a more insistent, purposeful, straight-ahead pulse: Issa clearly means business on this one. As he and the band do even more fervently on the album’s final track, Tidawt (Unity), which laments the state of the band’s native land, portrayed as a camel ripped to shreds by a jackal. Imharhan were one of the stars of last year’s Lincoln Center Out of Doors festival, and their live show promises to be even more electrifying in Littlefield’s more intimate, sonically excellent space. As far as the album is concerned, where can you hear it online? Well, you basically can’t – although live versions of some of the tracks have made it to youtube, you’ll have to go to the show instead.

Break of Reality Bridge the Gap Between Indie Classical and Cinematic Art-Rock

 

Break of Reality occupy a kinetic, often cinematically original space in the center of the postrock spectrum, with the atmospherics of bands like itsnotyouitsme and Victoire off to one side and more rhythmically-fueled groups like Mogwai and My Education to the other. Break of Reality transcend the cello rock label, considering that their songwriting is closer to indie classical or the mathrock side of Radiohead than, say, the lustrously moody chamber pop of Serena Jost or the gothic menace of Rasputina. Saturday night the four-piece band treated a sold-out crowd at Subculture to an eclectic release show for their latest album, Ten, highlighting every facet of their shapeshifting compositions, from their chamber music roots to their current adventures at the fringes of indie rock.

While co-founder Patrick Laird delivered several of the night’s most breathtaking solos and cadenzas, his fellow cellists Laura Metcalf and Adrian Daurov got their share of moments to add creepy glissandos, rapidfire staccato passages, nimble pizzicato lines and the occasional austerely suspenseful interlude. Percussionist Ivan Trevino played judicious, terse, sometimes Middle Eastern-inflected grooves on djembe during the night’s first set before going behind the plexiglass shield to a full drum kit (and supplying piano on a couple of tracks as well) for the second part of the night. He emphasized the group’s dedication to jamming, in this particular instance more of a brave attempt to craft an anthem on the spot than it was about sharing ideas, or banter, or jousting in the way that your typical jamband, or jazz crew, will do onstage.

The quartet opened with hammering circular riffage which gave way to serpentine, intertwined countermelodies and then towering, pulsing crescendos that would make for memorable action film themes. A bit later they brought down the lights for a warmly inviting original arrangement of a Bach cello suite, each cellist getting to pass the baton to the next, the group maintaining a perfectly precise, old-world wide-angle vibrato. Laird wowed the crowd with a knottily tuneful, Appalachian-tinged solo piece written by Turtle Island String Quartet cellist Mark Sommer. After that, the group hit a peak with an anthem from the new album, Light the Fuse, which Laird explained was inspired by the populist response to current global unease. The highlight of the second, generally harder-rocking set, was another new song, Star, following a long trajectory upward to a triumphantly swaying, toweringly optimistic theme before receding back into deep-space lushness and then the hypnotic cross-string motives that opened it. They encored with an older number that blended resonant neoromantic melody with a challenging rhythmic drive, evoking the work of Lukas Ligeti. This perfectly capsulized the ensemble’s appeal: they’re clearly just as at home in the avant garde as they are on a rock stage. Their upcoming US tour kicks off with a free show at Jamfest in Victoria, Texas on April 19.

Tammy Faye Starlite – From Lakeside Lounge to Lincoln Center

As an artist, you make your Lincoln Center debut – assuming you can get one – by bringing a polished program that’s going to knock out the critics, right? If you’re Tammy Faye Starlite, you bring a raw if tightly rehearsed work in progress – and pack the house, and blow them away with it. Thursday night the insurgent comedienne/chanteuse/agitator led a poised yet gritty six-piece rock band through a characteristically irreverent, often hilarious and just as shattering set of Marianne Faithfull songs, including the cult singer’s iconic 1979 album Broken English in its entirety.

Beyond her work in film, the theatre and tv, Tammy Faye Starlite has won a devoted following for her unsparing, often caustically funny but revealing portraits of complicated rock personalities. She’s come a long way since her days at the now-defunct Alphabet City hotspot Lakeside Lounge, where she led the Mike Hunt Band through a series of snarky Rolling Stones album cover nights, pillaging the Glimmer Twins catalog for both gems and duds. Her most popular revue both lampoons and celebrates the music of Nico. Likewise, Tammy has used music and albums by the New York Dolls, Blondie and the Runaways as well as her own alt-country songwriting as springboards for stingingly literate, historically informed, uproariously amusing political commentary.

As usual this time out, the comedy was merciless. Tammy mocked Faithfull’s socialite snobbery as well as the acid-fueled hippie mysticism with which much of her work from the 70s is laced. In an impressively faithful Tory accent, Tammy channeled the British singer garbling her Biblical references, quoting from the “Book of Seth.” A little later, in introducing an aching, vividly bitter version of John Lennon’s Working Class Hero, she pondered whether a child of privilege such as Faithfull, or for that matter, Rick Perry and the rest of the Fox News cabal, could understand a 99-percenter’s rage and frustration. Her wryly meandering conclusion was that they could, even if they’re not exactly working-class and hardly heroes. But the music just as often took centerstage.

Early on, the sheer strength of Tammy’s voice threatened to subsume the elegant hesitance, not to mention the drug-damaged melismatics, that are Faithfull’s signature vocal tics. But as the show went on, the evocation became more eerily accurate, culminating in a rivetingly surreal, jangly rock version of Times Square. That song quickly became just as much an elegy for an edgy early 80s New York priced out by mallstore sterility and Disney tastelessness as it was a portrait of heartbroken alienation set against a backdrop of menace and decay. Lead guitarist Kevin Salem rescued the lesser tracks on Broken English – “the filler,” as Tammy acknowledged – with nonchalantly savage, expertly unhinged, judiciously placed acid blues licks. Multi-instrumentalist Keith Hartel channeled another guy with the same name on electric guitar, later switching to keyboards, finally turning in a spot-on, absolutely haunting take of Sister Morphine on acoustic, which was the night’s most memorable song and the point at which the personalities of Tammy and Marianne fused as one.

Getting there was a lot of fun. As usual, Tammy sprinkled snide bits of trivia and razorwire improv in with the songs. Folksinger Tim Hardin, co-writer of Brain Drain, the prosaically bluesy ode to scoring dope, had become known as “Tim Heroin” in New York circles by the time he penned the lyrics. As the show went on, the way Tammy handled a persistently vocal audience member who once was a neighbor of Hardin’s, and still revered him, became a clinic in how to finesse the most unwilling subject to set up a cruelly perfect punchline. She finally let down her hair with a raging, aptly punked-out, expletive-strewn version of Why’d Ya Do It, complete with faux-orgasmic vocalese which became a very physical shout-out to Penny Arcade, whose performance piece Bitch! Dyke! Faghag! Whore! Faithfull had made a cameo in back in the 90s.

Bassist Jared Michael Nickerson gave the album’s seemingly interminable stoner new wave title track an unwaveringly circular groove in tandem with drummer Ron Metz. Salem fueled Shel Silverstein’s would-be suicide epic The Ballad of Lucy Jordan with some unexpected U2 riffage, while keyboardist David Dunton switched from fluid organ lines to more sardonically woozy synth voicings. And Craig Hoek built an unexpected but effectively optimistic ambience on some of the later material in the set on both alto and soprano sax. “We wanted to play as long as we could, considering that we probably won’t be invited back,” Tammy snidely averred before an attempt to get an audience singalong going with As Tears Go By, but the crowd seemed too stunned and overwhelmed to respond. And it wouldn’t be wishful thinking to hope for a return engagement: as both the performance and brave choice of artist made clear, this isn’t your father’s Lincoln Center anymore. In the meantime, Tammy and the band are going to reprise most of this show on May 13 at Joe’s Pub.

Hard-Hitting Art-Rock and Chamber Pop from AK

AK are not an Alaskan band, nor are they a gangsta rap project with an automatic rifle for a logo. AK are a tuneful, purist chamber pop/art-rock group fronted by singer/keyboardist Alexandra Kalinowski. The group – which also includes violinist Hajnal Pivnick, clarinetist Lindsey Cosgrove, bassist Carl Limbacher and drummer Ross Marshall – have a new album, How Not to Be Alone, streaming at Bandcamp and a release show on March 23 at 4 (four) PM at the small room at the Rockwood. If the rest of the set is anything like the four tracks on the ep, it’s going to be intense.

Kalinowski has an insistent, hard-hitting, dancing attack on the piano and a soaring voice that she sometimes modulates carefully, other times she’ll cut loose with a full-throttle, practically operatic wail. Her arrangements for strings and winds are clever and emphatic. The album’s first track, Circles has her cascading down the piano to an aptly cyclical riff. “Not every end is as good as we started,” she asserts, then an ornately multitracked choir of voices mimics the pizzicato of a violin. It’s a neat touch.

The second track, Electricity builds from hints of gospel to an ominously rising rage, the strings echoing the angst in the vocals: “I have told you everything and been misunderstood.” Florida follows a similar upward trajectory from a nebulous solo piano intro to an absolutely killer orchestral arrangement with flitting flute cadenzas and lush string glissandos – it seems to be a lament for a long-dead affair. The final cut, Pusher is the most pop-oriented but also the angriest song here: “He pushes the pen toward my dying right hand,” Kalinowski wails. There hasn’t been a short album this good on this page in awhile: a lot of righteous wrath and intelligence here, which the band probably takes up a notch onstage.

Cherven Traktor Bring Balkan Excitement to Manhattan

Once a month the Jalopy Theatre books a free Friday early evening concert at the American Folk Art Museum. As a way to lure a Manhattan-centered audience, it’s good marketing for the esteemed, otherworldly lowlit, comfortably welcoming Red Hook Americana music venue/instrument repair shop/music school. It’s also an easy way for a Manhattan-centered audience to get an idea of the kind of fantastic shows the Jalopy puts on.

This past Friday, high-energy Bulgarian folk band Cherven Traktor were the guests. Percussionist Michael Ginsburg stood holding his big, boomy tapan bass drum and helped the audience count out the tricky meters – 9/4, 7/4 and even 13/4 – as well as the offbeat accents that propel the old country dances this music was meant for. Meanwhile, it didn’t take long for a line to form along the back of the gallery area, the dancers gamely negotiating the museum space. The quintet opened with what sounded like an Irish reel, but with eerie microtones spinning from bandleader Nikolay Kolev’s gadulka fiddle. Belle Birchfield strummed stately rhythm on her tambura lute over the bassist’s tersely dancing pulse; chanteuse Donka Koleva led the band with her elegantly otherworldly melismas, soaring resonance and occasional swoops and dips on a handful of numbers as well.

As Ginsburg reminded the crowd, Bulgarian music is as eclectic as any other nation’s. Regions to the south have a leaping, spiraling style closer to Macedonian or Greek music, while music from the the north typically has more of a traditionally chromatic, occasionally Middle Eastern-inspired feel. From the middle comes a sound that’s as hard-charging as it is hypnotic. Methodically and kinetically, Cherven Traktor made their way through all of them: it’s not every day that you see music this exciting in a museum. Kolev led the way with flurrying Middle Eastern flourishes, nonchalantly shivery chromatic runs and bounding riffs that he ran over and over again with unflinching precision, which wasn’t exactly easy to do considering how little wiggle room there was between the notes.

Ginsburg crooned a slowly swaying tune that began like a Balkan take on a mariachi ballad. Koleva soared through a hopeful number about the accessories women traditionally wore in Bulgaria in anticipation of spring. A couple of tunes teased the listener before suddenly switching from an easygoing major-key to a biting minor. The band didn’t seem like they wanted to stop and neither did the danceline. Cherven Traktor’s NYC home base is – you guessed it – the Jalopy; watch this space for upcoming shows.