New York Music Daily

Love's the Only Engine of Survival

Month: May, 2014

A Grim Look into the Future from HUMANWINE

Boston’s best band for the better part of a decade and now based in Vermont, HUMANWINE play important, politically insightful, exhilarating Romany-flavored punk rock and noir cabaret. They’re the closest thing to the Clash or the Dead Kennedys that we have right now. Those comparisons are especially appropriate considering that HUMANWINE (a cryptic acronym for Humans Underground Making Anagrams Nightly While Imperialistic Not-Mes Enslave) don’t just write songs about doom and despair under an all-seeing Orwellian eye. The band’s core, frontwoman Holly Brewer and guitarist/keyboardist Matthew McNiss envision an alternate future that’s NOT a corporate fascist surveillance state. Since the band came up right after the Bush/Cheney coup d’etat in 2000, their response has been venomous, and sarcastic, and articulate right from the start. They see this happening in their own country, and they take it personally. More of us should.

Right now they have a characteristically creepy, carnivalesque new album, Fighting Naked, and an ep, Mass Exodus, up at their Bandcamp page as name-your-price downloads, as ominously entertaining as they are prophetic. The music on the album is intense, and feral, and anthemic, and the message is spot-on. Are we going to be hypnotized by the “hypocritical fascist porno priests on the tv selling you shit you don’t need, ” while we let the billionaires and their multinational cartels inch us closer and closer to fullscale slavery – or are we going to join forces, all of us, delete our Facebook accounts and then give Big Brother the boot? It’s our call.

Many of the corrosively propulsive narratives here are told from the point of view of exiles and freedom fighters battling a murderous occupation. Some are set in the imaginary fascist state of Vinland, which is basically the world taken forward a few years to where every move a person makes is recorded and watched. But as Brewer reminds on the live acoustic version of the catchy, defiant protest anthem 1st Amendment, surveillance can work both ways. Who’s watching the watchers?

The first track on the album is a macabre punkmetal waltz, UnEntitled States of Hysteria, Brewer’s machinegun vocals splattering a grim tableau of life under the occupation, with a snide outro that makes the connection between medieval witch trials and this era’s demonization of so-called terrorists. The next cut, Big Brother, a Middle Eastern-tinged punk tune, is more defiant and optimistic: when the “Eye of the pyramid is keeping track of your every move, every day your thoughts are all you got – so go and do what you gotta do.”

Tumbling drums – is that Brian Viglione or Nate Greenslit? – and McNiss’ murderously growing low-register guitar fuel the title track, another creepy waltz. Wake Up is next, a sarcastic, surreal lullaby that morphs into a viciously sarcastic faux military march, followed by a punk sea chantey that offers a hint of comic relief.

“Sometimes families change…create your own,” Brewer sings coldly on the chorus of Epoch, which opens as a deliciously ominous, Britfolk-tinged number and then bounces toward Balkan musical territory in 5/4 time. Likewise, the album’s most macabre song, Worthless Ode, shifting from a morbid march to a Transylvanian dance: it’s about love during wartime, and it doesn’t end well. Another menacing waltz, Script Language sounds like Vera Beren covering Trans-Siberian Orchestra, with some brooding trumpet from the Ghost Train Orchestra‘s Brian Carpenter.

The banjo-driven Rivolta Silenziosa has a World Inferno-style noir cabaret feel, shifting uneasily between low-key and anguished. The most vivid of the Bush-era parables is the pensive, defeated, Pink Floyd-ish art-rock anthem When in Rome: “You can’t see the dead as they’re arriving – many more in the back are under flags and hiding,” Brewer intones. The album ends with a radio transmission from Vinland, the hardy few remaining trying to enjoy themselves with “an apocalyptic night on the town,” or what remains of it, Brewer taking it up and out with an operatic intensity.

The ep also includes Our Devolution Is Televised, whose recurrent mantra is “Can’t you feel the lockdown?”, and the raging, surreal Death Wish for the Impostor. These are great albums, and they’re important ones. The whole point of this music is that in times like these, you become either a hero or a zero: it falls to ordinary people like us to do heroic things. And history is on our side: there’s plenty of precedent. The Nazis weren’t defeated by a race of giants. It was people just like you and everybody else who risked their lives – and lost them, sometimes – to put an end to that particular strain of fascism. We really don’t have any other choice. Imagine what the guards at Auschwitz would have done with GPS technology.

HUMANWINE are playing the album release show for these two on June 10 at the Lizard Lounge, 1667 Mass Ave. in Cambridge, Massachusetts with their acoustic side project the Folks Below opening.


A Brief, Unhinged Masterpiece from the Skull Practitioners

Jason Victor is the best lead guitarist/sparring partner Steve Wynn‘s ever had. That’s high praise, considering Karl Precoda’s unhinged work in Wynn’s iconic 80s band the Dream Syndicate. Then there’s Chris Brokaw, whose uneasy riffage in the early days of Wynn’s Miracle 3 band was probably the most menacingly gorgeous that group’s ever had. And let’s not forget Rich Gilbert’s similarly paint-peeling playing in Wynn’s sinister, ferocious mid-90s band. But Victor stands alone as a master of both noise and tunefulness, shifting gears in a split second from savage to beautifully terse. For a taste of some of the wildest guitar jams ever attempted, let alone recorded, check out Wynn’s channel – you can get lost there for days.

But Victor also plays in other bands. There was an adrenalizing, sludgy unit called DBCR who recorded an ep a couple of years ago that you should hear if noise is your thing. What’s even better is ST1, the awesome ep by the Skull Practitioners, Victor’s band with Kenneth Levine and Alex Baker, which is also up at Bandcamp as a name-your-price download (although what you really should own is the cassette recording – you have a boombox, right?). It’s as good as the best side on the Stooges’ Metallic KO.

This ep is so beautifully evil and assaultive and catchy despite itself that there’s really nothing that compares with it this year other than G.W. Sok’s album with Action Beat, and this is more tuneful. The first track evokes both Daydream Nation era Sonic Youth and 80s noiserock legends Live Skull, with desperate vocals from Ana Barie: “I’ll bring it down” is the mantra that she hits after every litany of doomed imagery. Victor hits a haphazard raga-ish solo that eventually echoes itself to death, then a vicious, Blue Oyster Cult-style progression as Barie wails to the end.

The second track, Nelson D (a reference to the New York Governor responsible for the state’s paleoconservative drug laws, maybe?) sounds like Arthur Lee on crank, an endless series of whistling, whirring, toxic guitar lines sputtering and chopping through riff-rock and then dreampop interludes: the Steve Wynn influence is everywhere. Foreign Wives is sort of their Psychotic Reaction: spiky icepick intro, sarcastically wailing guitar leads, brisk new wave beat. The final track is the longest, with an out-of-focus vocal from Tom Derwent, long drones, allusions to funk, sick bent-note mental asylum screams from the guitars going on for what seems minutes and an ending that the band finally allows to completely disintegrate – considering how tight they’ve kept everything this far, they’ve earned it. Crank this up whenever: getting up for work, coming home furious after a bad day at work, smoking up, it’ll hit the spot.

Hannah Thiem Brings Her Transcendent Show to the Mercury

Let’s say you’ve been up since seven in the morning and it’s been a rough day. Maybe you drag yourself to the Mercury Lounge anyway even though you feel like the sum total of the day’s dents and scratches – or a lifetime’s worth of dents and scratches. A little after midnight, you leave the club flying, glad to be alive, cool night air filling your lungs. Completely pain-free, and you haven’t even had a drink. Things like this happen after you’ve just seen violinist Hannah Thiem play for an hour.

Thiem is all about transcendence. For someone whose music tends to be dark and inward-looking, she smiles a lot onstage: last night, it was obvious that she was having a lot of fun, notwithstanding the somber, bracing, often wounded poignancy of her songs. When she wasn’t pairing off with one of the cellists (Isabel Castellvi and Rubin Kodheli), elegantly exchanging riffs or intertwining snaky harmonies with violinist Emily Holden or drummer Konrad Meissner, Thiem closed her eyes and swayed, lost in the groove. She likes minor keys, Nordic and Middle Eastern melodies, especially with her dancefloor art-rock instrumental ensemble Copal. This was the album release show for her solo debut album, Brym, and she treated the audience to most of it.

Thiem mixed up the instrumentation depending on the song. She opened with a long, pensive solo improvisation against an ambient electronic backing track, then the two-cello string quartet with drums delivered what might have been the most exhilarating song of the night, Meissner driving it with his dramatic cymbal splashes before it wound down with a fluttery unease. Thiem’s choice of cellists made for all kinds of sonically luscious contrasts, Castellvi’s mysterious juxtaposition of pitchblende lows and keening harmonics against Kodheli’s slithery, sometimes assaultively percussive attack, which took centerstage on the night’s next-to-last epic. Thiem stuck for the most part with a biting midrange, more like a violist than a violinist, choosing her spots as her wary, windswept vistas unwound.

She played the album’s title track, a stark but sweeping arrangement of a Norwegian folk song, solo over a backing track with the song’s new video playing on a screen behind her. A little later, she opened another with a spiky pizzicato intro before Meissner brought in a swooshy shimmer of cymbals, and the cinematics began. They wound up the night with a moodily swaying Copal trip-hop groove, the most night’s Middle Eastern-tinged number.

And where is Thiem taking her show on the road this summer? To yoga centers. Consider: every musician wants a captive audience, right? And other than the supermarket or your local pizza place (which might be a little iffy, actually), where else can you find a captive audience? Thiem actually has a background teaching yoga, so the synergy makes even more sense. Considering how boomy the sonics are at your typical gym, she won’t even have to use an amp.

Karikatura Plays Dance Music for the New York That the Corporate Media Doesn’t Want You to Know About

Karikatura‘s music is what happens when smart kids get together in a multicultural city. Their catchy, danceable blend of salsa, ska, reggae, funk, latin rock and soul, Romany and Russian music, is an indelible New York sound. It’s a stretch to imagine a band from Alaska having as diverse influences as this crew. And as much as you probably wouldn’t typically expect dance music to have excellent lyrics, Karikatura’s does, reflecting the unease of life in a city ravaged by gentrification and its consequences. Pretty much any oldschool New Yorker will find themselves at home in this band’s songs, notwithstanding how much originality and cross-pollination is going on. Karikatura are playing the album release show for their new full-length debut, Eyes Wide (some of which is up at their Bandcamp page) on June 1 at around 9 at Bowery Electric; cover is $10.

The band’s arrangements are deceptively spare. There’s always something interesting going on: Eric Legaspi’s dancing basslines, biting riffs from the alto sax and trombone, a ringing Dima Kay guitar lick, or a suspenseful percussion break. And nobody wastes notes. The album’s title track, a bracing latin reggae tune, sets the stage, frontman Ryan Acquaotta chronicling what happens when the real estate mob decides to take over a sketchy part of town: “With the luxury developments they’re packing in, propaganda that the neighborhood is back again, watch whoever is moving in after, blowing their cover.” And then the displacement of the people who call it home begins.

Likewise, Viennese Doors makes an intense, guitar-fueled anthem out of a dispirited urban picture: “Walkup, kitchen shower, dishes piled up, count the hours, killing time on dirty sofa, losing mind games over and over.” Get Together makes moodily tense, slow latin soul out of Walk on Wild Side changes, with multi-reedman Joe Wilson’s jazzy horn chart and a barrage of global warming-era disaster images. The band picks up the pace with the cynical, spot-on Coney Island Romany ska-punk anthem Brighton Beach, alto sax and trombone trading animated bars in a shady part of town run by an “immigrant citizen mafia government,” its buildings with both a “balcony oceanview” and a “basement workers’ room,” where the beach is “an undressed democracy.”

Someone gets an up-to-the-moment spin on the kind of tropical sounds the Clash were nicking on Sandinista: “Don’t want you wrapped up in ribbons, better naked in my honest opinion,” Acquaotta tells a girlfriend. On Bailarina, the band quotes the classic Moroccan freedom fighter anthem Ya Rayyeh in between verses about a guy halfheartedly trying to pick up a girl in a club. Stubborn works a spare, calypso-flavored groove, while NYC Hustle mixes elements of dancehall reggae and dub into a high-energy, psychedelic shout-out to immigrant dreams in the big city. Likewise, Acquaotta sings the gritty around-the-way anthem Soy Quien Soy in sardonic Spanglish, a latin funk tune with tinges of psychedelic cumbia, soulfully resonant trombone mingling with jangly guitar.

Ashes, with its loopy rhythms and unexpectedly fiery guitar interlude, looks at interior, interpersonal unease. Honey Bee sets a shuffling, syncopated clave tune over an altered Motown bassline. The vamping latin soul song Death or a Hurricane blends in hints of merengue, plus a sax solo played through a wah pedal like a muted trumpet. The album winds up with the lilting English-language samba Ocean Blue and its lively seaside ambience. This is a soundtrack for the future of New York, and for that matter, the world: multicultural, politically aware, defiantly fun, and danceable as hell. What a great time for music and a rough time for just about everyone.

Yemen Blues Bring Their Irresistible Middle Eastern Grooves to Highline Ballroom

Middle Eastern dance-rock band Yemen Blues  have been making regular stops in Manhattan and Brooklyn over the past couple of years. They’ve got a show coming up at Highline Ballroom on June 13 at 8; advance tix are $25 and highly recommended. Here’s what they sounded like at Globalfest at Webster Hall last year:

“The first notable act was Yemen Blues, who drew the biggest crowd of the evening, an enthusiastic posse of Sephardic kids who packed themselves in close to the stage and danced joyously to the group’s slinky funk rhythms. Yemen Blues are neither Yemeni nor are they a blues band: the nine-piece Israeli-American group is something akin to the missing link between Rachid Taha and the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, with occasional detours into the Middle East, or, on one song, into French Creole balladry. Over the hypnotic pulse of Omer Avital’s bass, the string section and horns fired off lively, amiable Moody Blues-style classical cadenzas while their frontman – a big hit with the ladies in the crowd, old and young – slunk and implored and very effectively got everyone to move their bodies. Avital is one this generation’s great jazzmen – although nobody seemed to recognize him. He’s been playing a lot of oud lately, and with that instrument added a dark, pensive thicket of moody textures to the band’s slower songs, including one particularly harrowing, introductory taqsim.”

Psychedelic Rockers the Sleepy Hahas Survive an Aborted Manhattan Debut

Even with the threat of rain, the hookers were out in full force Thursday night. They were on every corner all the way down First Avenue from Fourteenth Street to Houston, sometimes a gaggle of them, some of them solo, mostly women, although there were guys out there too. Must be Fleet Week.

A giant sinkhole had devoured much of the south side of Houston between Ludlow and Orchard in the wake of a water main break earlier in the day. The Lower East Side bedrock has been shaved past the bone over the past decade to make way for sewage and gas and water lines for all the latest “luxury” condo towers. You can only have so many plastic surgeries before there’s nothing left of your face – same deal with the infrastructure.

A couple of blocks further south in the former Bar 11/Annex space, now split down the middle and called Tammany Hall on the south side of the divide, a lesbian folksinger serenaded a handful of tourists, rasping and gasping her way through Tom Petty covers and a handful of less melodic originals. Who was that late 80s Janis Joplin wannabe who had David Crosby’s test tube baby? That’s who this girl sounded like, a cliche on wheels.

Buffalo psychedelic band the Sleepy Hahas, who do a more jam-oriented take on the kind of heavy pop that Twin Turbine were playing around these parts ten years ago, made their Manhattan debut afterward, getting about twenty minutes onstage before being kicked off. They’re a lot heavier live than their new, sarcastically titled album Dull Days would suggest. Frontman/guitarist Pat Butler wore a Black Keys t-shirt and brought a pedalboard that looked like it was going to shortcircuit any second – which might or might not have happened. Bassist Ron Hensberry had an Abbey Road album cover shirt and a fuzzbox, which he used for his slowly loping, Geezer Butler-influenced lines, until one of the bartenders came up onstage and after a lengthy discussion, he ended up turning down. Which wasn’t necessary since he wasn’t competing with anyone sonically. It was Steve Tripi’s drums that were amped so high in the mix – not that this small space needs to amplify drums at all – that the guitar ended up being pretty much inaudible for most of the set.

So it was cool to hear Tripi swing his way through the changes, methodically, and tersely, and with a good deal of suspense, and hear Hensberry’s melodic waves of bass rise and fall, fuzzed out or growling and snapping. And when Butler hit his volume pedal, he suddenly appeared in the mix, a tantalizing hint of how this band might sound if someone was actually in the sound booth and trying to get the mix right instead of going AWOL the second the band hit the stage.

Butler started out with a vintage Gibson hollowbody and quickly switched to a gorgeous Rickenbacker for the rest of the band’s abbreviated set. They opened with a hangover anthem, I Hate My Body and It Hates Me Too. Their second tune went in a catchy, vintage Blues Magoos garage-psych direction. They worked a swaying, trip-hop-influenced groove on a couple of numbers, keyboardist Phil Shore tirelessly playing a loop that he easily could have put into a pedal – but he must think that playing it live is more fun. Another good sign. Meanwhile, the coked-up club promoter played air drums and banged on the railing behind the abbreviated seating area past the stage. Yet it was obvious despite the distractions that this band is incredibly tight, they know what they’re doing and are more fun to hear the more you hear of them.

And they drove all the way down from Buffalo for twenty minutes onstage. Dudes, if you never play Manhattan again, that’s understandable. Then again, not every venue here will dis you this egregiously. Maybe next time you should try Brooklyn and play the Acheron or St. Vitus where people are more likely to appreciate you.

The Glass House Project Reinvent Haunting, Exhilarating Jewish Themes

Friday night at Drom the Glass House Project played alternately sizzling and haunting new arrangements based more or less on old klezmer and Hungarian folk themes. The Hungarian-American collaboration take heir name from the best-known of the over seventy secret refuges for Jews that underground resistance hero Carl Lutz set up throughout Budapest during the Holocaust. Perhaps reflecting the triumph of that defiant achievement, the music was exhilarating, bristling with eerie chromatics and fiery solos from throughout the band. Trumpeter Frank London led the group through split-second shifts from suspensefully atmospheric, to frantic, to joyously triumphant. There was an uneasy, carnivalesque undercurrent to much of the music, as well as an explosive circus-rock drive peaked by wild crescendos from violinist Jake Shulman-Ment, guitarist Aram Bajakian, violinist/singer Szirtes Edina Mokus, multi-reedman Bela Agoston and cimbalom player Miklos Lukacs.

Drummer Richie Barshay supplied grooves ranging from mistily atmospheric, to slow and slinky, to crazed and vaudevillian while bassist Pablo Aslan anchored the songs with dark, fat, pulsing lines, often playing with a bow to max out the dark, sustained intensity. They played the show as a suite, more or less, launching into one theme after another: it was hard to tell just where one tune began and the other ended. Ethereal strings gave way to trumpet-fueled romps, Bajakian adding the occasional wryly skronky passage, eerily surfy solo or majestically spacious, bell-like accents on a twelve-string which still had a pricetag attached to the neck.

The high point of the early part of the show was a shapeshifting number that began with stop-and-start horn bursts, then a a misterioso noir theme with Bajakian’s guitar paired off against menacingly starlit cimbalom. Then it morphed into a march that Barshay took further outside, rhythmically, into a bit of a free jazz-inspired free-for-all and then back to the slinky menace – and then a lickety-split outro. The last song worked a similarly biting, chromatically-fueled theme over a beat that started out funky and then went into a madcap vaudevillian sprint. On one of the earlier tunes, Agoston played bagpipe, eventually holding a note for what seemed minutes as hs slowly squeezed all the air out of it. “Even some people in Hungary don’t know we have these,” said singer Kata Harsaczki, who contributed vocals on that song as well as on a rustic diptych that began slowly and then went lickety-split a little later. For anyone kicking themselves because they decided to not to brave the elements to see this show, the band will be at the Museum of Jewish Heritage at 36 Battery Place (north and west of Battery Park; Battery Place runs parallel to Broadway) tonight, May 27 at 7:15 PM; admission is free, but you need to rsvp here. They’ll also be at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC yomorrow night, May 28 at 6.

Terse, Tuneful Cinematics from Ljova & the Kontraband

Is there a more cinematic composer working today than Lev “Ljova” Zhurbin? It would seem not. Like all film composers, he’s called on to portray every emotion and every possible scenario within a very short time frame, which informs his writing beyond the world of film as well. His latest album, No Refund on Flowers, with his string ensemble the Kontraband is considerably more stripped-down and a lot closer to those shapeshifting cinematics than the group’s boisterous, lushly orchestrated, absolutely brilliant 2008 debut, Mnemosyne. Which is to say that its charms are somewhat more subtle. Its title is a wry reference to a sign in the window at Ljova’s corner deli, Sing & Sing Market at 96th and Columbus Ave. He distinguishes himself with a devious wit along with his nonchalantly sizzling chops on the viola and fadolin along with accordionist Patrick Farrell, bassist Mike Savino and percussionist Mathias Kunzli. Vocals are  by Ljova’s wife, the crystalline, brilliant singer Inna Barmash. What’s most obvious from the first few bars of the dancing opening track, Sam I Am, is how much fun this band is having. Who would have expected the tangoesque (Ljova is a GREAT tango composer) interlude, or the Russian chromatics thrown in for good measure, or the way the band lets the suspense linger without any resolution?

The Blaine Game, a tightly wound, shapeshifting romp centered around a fluid accordion riff was written in a Blaine, Washington coffeeshop between jazz workshops, Kunzli’s rattle doing a fair impersonation of an espresso machine. Barmash – frontwoman of the deliriously fun Russian/Romany band Romashka – sings the John Jacob Niles version of Black Is the Colour, with a tender, crystalline resonance and some spine-tingling high notes, maxing out the torch factor over what’s essentially a tone poem until it goes all psychedelic and eerie. It has very little in common with the old English folk song.

The swaying nocturne Yossik’s Lullaby portrays one of Zhurbin’s sons as the more serious of the two; his brother Benjy gets a joyous bounce with operatic echoes and a big crescendo. Likewise, Mad Sketchbook, a NYC subway tableau, grows cleverly from a catchy circular theme to frenetic clusters and then back. The centerpiece of the album is By the Campfire, a sadly pulsing, chromatically-charged waltz, with a creepy, explosive, crashingly noisy interlude, Barmash sliding up and leading the band into a raging march. The lyrics – which Barmash translated from a 12th century German poem – echo a sadly universal theme: ‘Lies and spite rule the world, law is dead, truth is poisoned – the wisdom of our age teaches theft, deceit and hate. ” The album winds up with a pulsing waltz that builds on a riff from Mahler.

Action Beat & G.W. Sok – Not for the Faint of Heart or the Hung Over

A Remarkable Machine, the new collaboration between British noiserockers Action Beat and G.W. Sok – frontman of legendary Dutch postpunks the Ex – is the rare album that’s so intense that you can only listen to it once all the way through without taking a break. Some people will take one a lot earlier. It’ll clear a room in less than a minute. That’s why it’s so awesome.

Throughout the album’s ten tracks, the band works a surrealistically assaultive, paint-peeling formula. All the guitars have a ton of icy reverb on them, one of them more watery and menacing, the others typically more jagged, or muted, or percussive, cleverly separated between stereo channels in the style of 60s psychedelia. The changes eschew both major and minor chords, landing uneasily between the two, often with eerie close harmonies rubbing up against each other and shedding off otherworldly sparks.

There are also multiple drummers in the band: the songs typically start out with a single drum track and add more as they go on. The bass is trebly and often gets subsumed in the current of poisonously fluid guitars, or the stampeding drums. And what the hell Sok is talking about is never clear. His snidely articulated, mostly-spoken lyrics rise and then sink into the murky mess behind them – the effect only raises the menace. You have to be in the mood for this, and if you are, it’s transcendent. Otherwise it’ll give you a headache.

The centerpiece seems to be a Kafkaesque account of a tortuous execution machine, a theme that works perfectly with the mix of sawing, stabbing, frantically pinwheeling guitars. The opening track, Spoonfeed Hell, builds its wash of Daydream Nation-era Sonic Youth tremolopicking until the guitarists are completely out of gas, and that’s where it ends. Noisy scratches alternate with echoey clangs and firebombing flares throughout Judgment Letter, while bent-note wails, hints of funk and allusions to Public Image Ltd.’s Second Edition dominate Heap of Clay. Dig the Hole gets a catchy Silver Rocket riff that the band takes into screechy staccato territory.

Reverb-drenched squalls, elephantine snorts and a brief hardcore interlude alternate in the aptly tilted Pork Butcher’s Knife; likewise, the low-key Disappearing Man disappears quickly. Loops rise to a scream and then disintegrate into unhinged free jazz on Great Unfinished, while Citizen K recalls both vintage Sonic Youth as well as the Jesus & Mary Chain’s earliest experiments in noise. The album ends with its longest and ironically most accessible track, One Another – after forty minutes of fingers-down-the-blackboard shrieks and wails, one of the guitars hits a real, live major chord and the band moves uneasily into a facsimile of a stadium rock anthem. It seems to be sarcastic, of course. To say that this is the best album or most whatever album of the year is beside the point: it’s in a class by itself and will probably someday be regarded as a classic, at least by the people who can stand to listen to it for more than a few minutes at a time.

Now where can you hear this twisted masterpiece? Nowhere, yet, although Sok has plenty of other stuff up at his Bandcamp page, plus there are some live tracks at youtube.


Yet Another Gorgeous Album by Spottiswoode

If Spottiswoode never made another album, his place in the art-rock pantheon would be secure. From his days in the 90s fronting Washington, DC’s the Zimmermans to his similarly lyrical but considerably darker, Leonard Cohen-tinged career in New York starting around the turn of the century, multi-instrumentalist baritone crooner Jonathan Spottiswoode has been writing and playing richly arranged, sardonically elegant, angst-fueled songs that span from debauched Tom Waits-ish vignettes to lavishly orchestrated epics. He’s back with yet another good album, English Dream, streaming at Spotify. His snarling, psychedelic, politically-fueled 2012 masterpiece Wild Goosechase Expedition was arguably the high point of his career, a hard act to follow. Smartly, he goes in a completely different direction with this one, focusing more on purist tunesmithing than savage lyrical content – although there’s some of that too, and it’s characteristically choice. The band includes John Young on bass, Tim Vaill on drums, Candace DeBartolo on sax, Kevin Cordt on trumpet, Riley McMahon on guitar and Tony Lauria on keys.

The opening track, Till My Dying Day, sets the stage, a jangly, swaying nocturne with richly layered guitars, piano and melodic bass, rising and falling with lustrous, ambered horns in as it winds out. Spottiswoode’s voice has taken on more gravitas and soul with the years: he’s never sung more effortlessly, and more affectingly, than he does here.

The second track, Golden Apple, sounds like early zeros noir NYC legends DollHouse doing a creepy bolero – it’s a kiss-off anthem. Clear Your Mind is the Byrds as the Church – or for that matter, Marty Willson-Piper solo – might do it. I Didn’t Know I Was So Sad works a steady, vintage Bowie/Ian Hunter piano ballad groove, with hints of flamenco and 60s psychedelia. The title track moves from stark to even darker over a tricky 5/4 rhythm, like Joy Division’s The Eternal reinvented as early 70s Britfolk.

The aptly titled Majesty works a series of titanic swells up from pretty pastoralia. Genius Flower sets an ominous horn chart and Beatlesque chromatics to a staggered, dancing rhythm. With its anxiously fluttery, tremoloing intro, swooping clarinet and elegant electric harpsichord, the moody chamber pop anthem Butterfly might well be the album’s best song. Spottiswoode picks up the pace after that with No Time for Love, its brasslike guitar track and brisk new wave beat evoking the Church at their catchiest circa 1986 or so.

Gorgeously clanging bouzouki mingles with deep autumn orchestral colors on Another Year, a sardonic look at getting stuck on the romantic treadmill. So-called “coming-of’-age” songs usually suck: they tend to romanticize everything, but Dreamer Boy, a bittersweet recollection of middle school-age angst, reaches beyond that for a grandeur that finally peaks with a series of absolutely gorgeous downward runs on the piano. It contrasts with the snidely bluesy Blonde on Blonde sway of Who Were You Baby, a look back at a girl who would have turned out to be poison had she stuck around.

Melancholy Boy blends jazzy horns into tasty major/minor changes and then a long, lush, rippling outro. The album ends up with the gorgeously jangly, high-spirited nouveau-Byrds anthem Sweetest Girl. Much as the era of the big-studio album is pretty much finished, it’s heartwarming to see Spottiswoode still at it, artfully layering all those intricate, tastefully played tracks of bass and drums and guitars and keys and vocals into a majestic, cohesive whole. What else is there to say: as you would expect, it’s one of the half-dozen best albums of 2014 so far.