New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Month: June, 2014

Guitar Goddess Mary Halvorson Makes a Rock Record – Sort Of

The people who call themselves People – fiery jazz guitarist Mary Halvorson, irrepressible drummer Kevin Shea (of NYC’s funnest jazz group, Mostly Other People Do the Killing) and bassist Kyle Forester (from Crystal Stilts) have a new album titled 3xaWoman (The Misplaced Files) streaming at Telegraph Records’ site. It’s a riot, and it’s worth owning on vinyl, which is especially cool because it’s actually available in that format. The trio are playing what might or might not be the album release show at Death by Audio at 10 PM on July 2 if you’re in town.

Halvorson turns out to be an excellent singer, with a clear, balmy, attractive voice that contrasts with the snarl and menace of her guitar – any discussion of important guitarists in 2014 needs to have her front and center. Forester plays snaky, melodic lines along with Shea’s restless, tumbling, rumbling attack that sometimes provides comic relief against the guitar’s savage burn.

The album opens with a slow, moody, Twin Peaksian horn theme (that’s Peter Evans on trumpet, Sam Kulik on trombone and Dan Peck on tuba). The first of the funny numbers is called These Words Make Up the Lyrics of the Song, which quickly decays to a noisy improvisational interlude that becomes a very precisely choreographed exchange of ideas – and yet sounds completely random unless you listen closely. What’s So Woman About That Woman is a short, bristling hardcore tune, followed by A Song with Melody and Harmony and Words and Rhythm, which takes a brooding early 70s-style art-rock/Britfolk ballad and edges more menacingly toward noiserock. Lyrical jokes aside, just hearing Halvorson – one of the prime movers from Anthony Braxton’s avant garde circle – playing simple barre chords is funny all by itself.

The album’s most relevant song is the barely minute-long but cruelly spot-on Supersensible Hydrofracked Dystopia!!! The band follows that with a loopy oompah interlude, a snide acoustic parody of sorts and then Inoperable Intertrigo, a creepy, slowly marching blend of outsider jazz-inflected postrock and peak-era Sonic Youth.

Piles for Miles starts out suspiciously like a spoof of Bushwick meh-core indie pop and then works a dreampop/post-My Bloody Valentine vein. Another really short one, Psychic Recapitulation has some tasty, eerie guy-girl vocal harmonies. The Virtuous Relapse is one of the funniest numbers, with a punchline that’s too good to spoil. The Caveman Connection offers more dark punk rock humor, Halvorson’s calm vocals contrasting with a sludgy Melvins backdrop.

The funniest song here – and the funniest song of the year, bar none – is titled The Lyrics Are Simultaneously About How This Song Starts. Again, the jokes are too good to spoil – let’s just say that even if you don’t play music or write songs, it’s LMFAO good. The last song is an acoustic fragment that wouldn’t be out of place on Guided by Voices’ latest album. Who would have thought that such an unlikely lineup would end up having so much fun together, let alone make such a great record?

A Free Show and Two Contrasting Americana Albums by the Howlin’ Brothers

It’s hard to keep up with the Howlin’ Brothers. The trio of bassist Ben Plasse, fiddler/multi-instrumentalist Ian Craft and guitarist Jared Green are one of those well-loved Americana acts who make a living on the road, but they also make excellent albums. They’ve got a brand-new one out, Trouble, streaming at Spotify and a free outdoor show on July 1 starting around 5 in the parking lot out back of City Winery.

A quick listen to the new one reveals it as both more electric, more intense and darker than the band’s previous material. The album before that is an acoustic ep, the Sun Studio Session, where the band went into the legendary room where Elvis and Johnny Cash and so many other legends recorded and put down four originals, a remake of an earlier tune and a cover of a Sun classic, Carl Perkins’ 1956 single Dixie Fried.

What’s coolest about that tune is that you can hear as much Chuck Berry in it as you can bluegrass – and Craft’s banjo solo is as wild and fun as anything Brandon Seabrook could wail through. There’s also a spare, brooding, piano-driven, Tom Waits-ish version of Tennessee Blues, which originally appeared on the band’s Howl album.

The first of the new tracks, Til I Find You sets lickety-split banjo over a steady bass pulse, with that rich Sun Studios natural reverb on the vocals. True to its title, the slow Troubled Waltz, another banjo tune, has an oldtime Appalachian feel. Take Me Down, fueled by Green’s dobro, works a swaying, dead-of-summer delta blues groove. Charleston Chew, a slightly more modern (if you consider 1954 modern) take on a 1920-style one-chord blues, is the lone electric track here, the slow-burn tone of Green’s guitar contrasting with Craft’s energetic fiddle. Taken as a whole, the ep is a smartly lower-key counterpart to the band’s raucous live show. It’s gonna get hot in the parking lot on Tuesday evening.

Half Day Mix Up 80s Styles for a Sardonically Original Postpunk Sound

Most of the propulsive, sometimes frantic tunes on Brooklyn postpunk band Half Day‘s album In Public – streaming at their Bandcamp page – clock in at around two minutes, often less. They don’t waste notes, they get to the point and then get out, fast. Frontman Christopher Sullivan doesn’t sing as much as he intones, snide and sarcastic. Running his axe through his amp with just a rattle of natural distortion, guitarist Owen Nachtigal veers nimbly between the edge of chaos and singalong Johnny Marr catchiness over the tight rhythm section of Leslie Hong’s growly bass and Kieran Gannon’s jabbing, stabbing drums.

Many of the songs blend growly Wire terseness with a sardonic Smiths tunefulness. The opening track, Give Up sets the tone, guitar and bass in tandem through a catchy verse up to a chorus that’s part Celtic, part nebulously indie. It seems to be a wee-hours fuck-everything party scenario.

Saturday is a brisk punk tune that seems to be about a girl who ought to be missing a guy but isn’t. Trader Jacks is a scruffier take on the Smiths doing a latin-inspired groove. Shiner adds sarcastic flourishes like ah-ah backing vocals and faux funk guitar into a defeated fistfighter’s lament. Likewise, Destroy Me paints a fragmented, frustrated party-gone-to-hell scenario over uneasy tempo shifts.

Madison reaches for a more head-on Smiths ambience, with frenetic major/minor changes and a sardonic narrative about a gold-digging girl. Gators finds the band reaching for a noir blues ambience, an indie take on scampering oldtimey swing. Watches, the album’s longest song at just over three minutes, blends allusions to funk and cleverly multitracked guitars, from buzzy to distorted to jangly and clean. Wait Around blasts through less than two minutes of postpunk; the album ends up with Wild Card with its torrents of lyrics and bits and pieces of Celtic anthemicness and ska-punk. Much as Half Day draw on a whole bunch of well-worn retro styles, what they make with them is uniquely their own, and a lot of fun.

Jenny Scheinman Goes Back to Americana With Her Excellent New Album

Jenny Scheinman is best known as one of the great violinists in jazz, both as a bandleader and as a collaborator with guitar great Bill Frisell. But she also writes vivid, lyrical Americana songs. Her latest release, The Littlest Prisoner – streaming at Spotify – harks back to her eclectic, pensive self-titled 2008 album. Producer Tucker Martine, who took such a richly layered approach to Tift Merritt’s Still Not Home, does the very opposite here, matching the spareness of Scheinman’s previous Americana album. Most of the tracks feature just Frisell’s guitar and Brian Blade’s drums. She’s playing the album release show at le Poisson Rouge on June 30 at 7:30 PM; advance tix are $20 and highly recommended.

Wariness and unease counterbalance the summery sway of the music throughout these songs: Scheinman is always watching her back. The opening track, Brother, is a catchy, wary, slowly unwinding ballad in the Lucinda Williams vein, but with better vocals, Scheinman challenging a guy to be as solid and protective as a family member would be.

Run Run Run is not the Velvets classic but a shuffling bluegrass tune that contrasts Frisell’s signature, lingering guitar with Blade’s shuffle beat and Scheinman’s jaunty violin. It makes a good segue with the spare, Appalachian-flavored violin/guitar duet Thirteen Days.

The title track, Scheinman’s dedication to her then-unborn daughter, makes another uneasy juxtaposition between a lithely dancing, funk-flavored tune and a lyric that contemplates the perils of parenthood. By contrast, My Old Man looks back to Linda Ronstadt’s 70s ventures into Americana-tinged hippie-pop, but with purist production values. Likewise, Houston has the feel of a Lowell George ballad, but again with a spiky, sparse arrangement: Scheinman doesn’t waste a note anywhere.

She follows the brief, wistful Debra’s Waltz with Just a Child, a vivid reminiscence of a northern California back-to-the-land hippie upbringing: as she tells it, a bale of cocaine landed offshore there at least once. She winds up the album with the dancing, funky, bluesy violin instrumental Bent Nail and then its best track, the hypnotic, brooding, Velvet Underground-tinged Sacrifice. Once again, Scheinman reasserts that her prowess as an Americana artist matches her achievements in jazz. Fans of Laura Cantrell, Gillian Welch and other top-tier Americana songwriters will love this.

Revisiting a Cult Classic Album from John Sharples

Drummers usually have huge address books: the good ones play with lots of different people. That’s true of John Sharples, but his musicianship extends beyond drums to guitar, bass and keyboards. Many of the tracks on his obscure 2004 gem, I Can Explain Everything have him doing both basic and lead tracks on all those instruments plus vocals, but it’s not just a one-man band thing. It’s aged well, a tuneful, eclectic mix of powerpop, riff-rock, oldschool C&W and Americana. More importantly, it has historical significance for documenting the scene centered around Freddy’s Bar, the Atlantic Yards hotspot notoriously driven out in the illegal land grab that spawned the hideous, already decaying new basketball stadium there. Freddy’s lives on, relocated to Brooklyn’s South Slope; likewise, Sharples, a.k.a. Reggie Mental (his alter ego in obscure/legendary faux first-wave punk band the Spunk Lads) has a monthly Saturday night residency there with a rotating cast of great players. He’s there this Saturday night, June 28 at 8 with an intriguing lineup including ex-Aquanettas guitar goddess Debby Schwartz and Celtic punk bandleader Fran Powers.

On the album, Sharples sings with a tough, restless delivery throughout a mix of the kind of diverse material that you might expect from an in-demand drummer. He opens with a rare, absolutely gorgeous Matt Keating janglerock anthem, Mind’s Eye, playing twelve-string guitar over his own rhythm section. Keating himself spices Circus Guy leader Michael Culhane’s pub rock tune The Main Thing with swirling organ, Culhane adding a biting, bluesy guitar solo. Move It, by Ian Samwell, is new wave-tinged powerpop with a snarling Tom Rogers guitar solo. Sharples follows that with Graham Davies’ New Year’s Day, a morose, artsy early 70s-style rainy-day Britfolk tune that wouldn’t be out of place on an early Al Stewart record.

Hub Moore’s Thank You sounds like a cross between the Records and the DB’s, Sharples adding a wry George Harrison quote on slide guitar along with playing most of the other instruments. He gives Johnny Burnette’s Lonesome Tears in My Eyes a Tex-Mex sway and a little wry Orbison on the vocals, then later on tackles Michael Nesmith’s Papa Gene’s Blues as the Lovin’ Spoonful or Commander Cody might have done a vintage country tune.

The best songs come toward the end. The lone Spunk Lads tune here riffs on the Ramones, oi punk and hip-hop, with a chorus that goes “You do the work and I’ll take the credit, that’s just part of my charm.” By contrast, Paula Carino‘s Eminence Rouge (from her days with her band Regular Einstein, who auspiciously reunited for a gig and hopefully more this year) gets a poignant C&W treatment with Jon Graboff’s keening pedal steel and Michele Riganese’s fetching backup vocals. The catchy, anthemic Three More Wishes/Waiting for the Train blends twelve-string jangle with Graboff’s steel lingering in the backbround. Then Sharples follows the rockabilly tune A Big Hunk O’Love with a killer version of Charlie Poole & the North Carolina Ramblers’ haunting 1929 hillbilly anthem Baltimore Fire, sort of like Social Distortion with better vocals.

The album ends with a tricky, clever cover of George Harrison’s Long, Long, Long, Sharples on bass and guitars and the great Americana/jazz chanteuse Erica Smith on harmony vocals. There’s a sweet backstory here – Sharples and Smith married five years after the album came out. Where can you get a copy of this rarity? Well, at one of Sharples’ shows, for starters. And he still plays some of the best songs from it at gigs.

Legendary Jamaican Guitarist Ernest Ranglin Returns with Another Great Album

You don’t ordinarily expect octogenarians to make great albums. If they do, they usually revisit their earlier work, a victory lap. Count Ernest Ranglin among the rare exceptions. The greatest guitarist ever to come out of Jamaica has a new album, Bless Up (streaming online), which is one of his best, and he’s made a whole bunch of them. It’s has a lot more straight-up reggae than the elegant reggae jazz he’s known for (and basically invented all by himself). It also has a more lush, full sound than his previous album, Avila. That one was recorded on the fly during a break from a reggae festival; this one has more tunesmithing than vamping jams, drawing on the seven decades of Jamaican music that in many ways Ranglin has defined.

Organ – played by either Jonathan Korty or Eric Levy – holds the center on many of the tracks here, Ranglin adding judicious solos, alternating between his signature, just-short-of-unhinged tremolo-picked chords, sinewy harmonies with the keys, nimbly fluttering leaps to the high frets and references to the better part of a century’s worth of jazz guitar. The songs transcend simple, rootsy two-chord vamps. Darkly majestic, emphatic minor-key horn arrangements evocative of mid-70s Burning Spear carry the melody on several of the numbers: Bond Street Express, the opening tune; Jones Pen, which recreates the classic 60s Skatalites sound but with digital production values; and Rock Me Steady, the most dub-flavored track, driven by some neat trap drumming.

Mystic Blue evokes both the Burning Spear classic Man in the Hills and the Cure’s Boys Don’t Cry. The bubbly Sivan also sounds like Jah Spear, but from a decade or so later. The title track is a swing tune, more or less, Ranglin’s upstroke guitar over a close-to-the-ground snare-and-kick groove giving away its Caribbean origins. Likewise, the band mutates the bolero El Mescalero with a distinctly Jamaican beat that adds a surreal dimension of fun tempered by an unexpectedly desolate Charlie Wilson trombone solo.

Ranglin plays with a deeper, more resonant tone – and a shout-out to Wes Montgomery – on Follow On. Blues for a Hip King works a stately gospel groove up to a long, organ-fueled crescendo that contrasts with Ranglin’s spare, incisive lines. Ska Renzo, the most straight-up ska tune here, works all kinds of neat up/down shifts with reverb-toned melodica, carbonated Rhodes piano and a sharpshooter horn riff. You Too starts out like a balmy Marley ballad but quickly goes in a darker direction, Michael Peloquin’s restless tenor sax giving way to tersely moody solos from trombone and piano, Yossi Fine’s bass holding it down with a fat pulse. There’s also a pretty trad version of the jazz standard Good Friends and the simple gospel vamp Bra Joe from Kilimanjaro, reprised at the end as a long Grateful Dead-like jam. Clearly Jimmy Cliff’s longtime musical director in the years after The Harder They Come hasn’t lost a step since then.

Two First-Rate, Contrasting Tunesmiths

It’s hard to imagine two tunesmiths or performers with less in common than Shannon Pelcher and Jessi Robertson. Each played a tantalizingly short acoustic set Friday night at the American Folk Art Museum and held the crowd rapt for very different reasons, other than that both artists’ songs are purposeful and interesting, and that neither player wastes notes, vocally or guitarwise.

Pelcher went on first. She’s very eclectic, has a great sense of melody and sings in an unaffectedly clear, nuanced soprano. She’s also a strong guitarist and uses a lot of jazz chords, but spaciously: they don’t clutter her songs. And she switches up genres: a warmly swaying waltz, a straight-up oldschool country tune, a jaunty oldtimey swing number, bucolic Americana and sophisticated jazz (which may be her ultimate destination). So choosing to do the show as a duo with a jazz bassist who added a handful of tuneful, serpentine solos made perfect sense. One of the strongest tunes in Pelcher’s set, a terse, syncopated number with a wickedly catchy chorus, is on the compilation album that the museum is selling at their gift shop for a ridiculously cheap five bucks. Pelcher is playing Barbes tomorrow night, June 25 at 7 with the droll, literarily-inspired Bushwick Book Club.

Where Pelcher did a lot of things, Robertson did one thing, delivering a wallop with her full-throated, angst-ridden, soul-inspired alto wail and her harrowing songs. She’ll probably be the first to admit that she’s a band person rather than a solo performer, but she reaffirmed the old aphorism that if a song sounds good solo acoustic, it’ll sound even better with a full band behind it. She opened in a nebulously early 70s Pink Floyd/Britfolk vein with a vamping lament, following with a moody reflection on aging that reminded of Kelli Rae Powell. The longing and ache in Robertson’s voice was relentless; as powerful an instrument as it is, she proved just as subtle and dynamic a singer as Pelcher, at one point disdainfully pushing the mic down and singing the rest of her set without any amplification. Not that she needed it, especially with the museum atrium’s natural reverb.

Explaining that she had a new album in the can, she told the crowd that her producer had heard her playing a brand-new song and insisted that she go back in the studio, a smart move: with its dark blues and gospel echoes, it turned out to be a characteristicaly potent portrait of pain and alienation. The characters in Robertson’s narratives deal with a lot of that, especially the girl who cuts herself in You Don’t Want to Taste My Heart, from her 2011 album Small Town Girls, arguably the high point of the show. And when she sang “You’re gonna burn, my love, ” over and over again over a haunting minor-key vamp as the last song wound out, there was no doubt she meant it. Robertson is playing LIC Bar in Long Island City at 1:30 on June 28 on an excellent multi-songwriter bill that also features Lara Ewen, the irrepressible impresario and soaring Americana singer who runs the museum’s consistently good Friday night concert series.

 

Bang on a Can Marathon 2014: A Short Version (Sort Of)

[republished from New York Music Daily’s “serious music” annex Lucid Culture]

This year’s Bang on a Can Marathon continued a trend back toward the hallowed annual all-day avant garde/indie classical music celebration’s early years. The 2014 edition was shorter than any in recent memory – for awhile these things would start before noon and continue into the wee hours of the following day. This year’s roughly ten-hour extravaganza also drew more heavily on the Bang on a Can triumvirate – composers Michael Gordon, Julia WolfeDavid Lang and their circle – than on the global cast who numbered heavily and often spectacularly among the composers and performers featured throughout the previous decade. The reason? Construction at the World Financial Center atrium, where the marathon returned after being squeezed into an auditorium at Pace University last year.

The seven-piece Great Noise Ensemble, conducted by Armando Bayolo, opened auspiciously with a new chamber arrangement of Bayolo’s own Caprichos. Inspired by Goya’s series of the same name, it was a dynamic and colorful series of miniatures: apprehensive airiness, a fleeting carnivalesque passage, darkly rhythmic, looped variations, and dreamy drones juxtaposed with a lively outro. The following work, Carlos Carrillo‘s De La Brevidad De La Vida drew on the Seneca treatise, a rivetingly austere, resigned, spaciously cinematic tone poem of sorts punctuated by muted anguish, notably from Andrea Vercoe’s violin.

Violinist Adrianna Mateo became a one-woman string orchestra with Molly Joyce‘s biting, matter-of-factly crescendoing loopmusic piece Lean Back and Release. The trio Bearthoven – pianist Karl Larson, bass guitarist Pat Swoboda and drummer Matt Evans – followed a bit later with a similarly upward-sloping stoner postrock piece, Undertoad, by Brooks Frederickson. It recalled the relentless dancefloor minimalism that Cabaret Contemporain performed at the 2013 marathon.

Acclaimed vocal quartet Anonymous Four – who are sadly hanging it up after this year – shifted direction plaintively with The Wood and the Vine, from Lang’s demanding, richly echo-laden, hypnotically intertwining partita, Love Fail. Atmospheric postrock minimalists Dawn of Midi made a thematically clever segue with excerpts from their cult favorite suite, Dysnomia, replete with subtle polyrhythmic shifts that  rose rather than fell at the end. How pianist Amino Belyamani, bassist Aakaash Israni and drummer Qasim Naqvi managed to keep their place as the trance pounded onward was hard to figure. Or maybe they were just jamming.

Choral octet Roomful of Teeth sang the first two movements from Caroline Shaw‘s Pulitzer-winning Partita for 8 Voices,  incorporating squaredance calls and “a little bit of pansori,” as Shaw put it. That, and an indomitable, fresh-faced ebullience that rose and fell through ambitious rhythmic and harmonic shifts, the composer’s powerful soprano front and center. Nineteen-piece chamber orchestra Contemporaneous gave voice to Andrew Norman’s Try, a frantically bustling work replete with sardonic humor: every hint of calm gets dashed by agitated cadenzas from throughout the ensemble in a split second. There was a contrasting, calm second half, mostly for vibraphone and piano, which got lost in the real bustle of the crowd making their way up the escalator to the new mallfood court to the left of the stage.

Meredith Monk is fun! She and fellow singer Theo Bleckmann revisited four segments of her witty, Canadian wilderness-inspired Facing North song cycle, which the duo had premiered on the stage here two decades ago. Indians gamely trying to keep warm, long winter shadows and droll conversations eventually gave way to playful jousting, Bleckmann keeping a straight face as Monk needled him mercilessly. It was the big audience hit up to this point. The two returned a little later for some more monkeyshines with members of the Bang on a Can All-Stars.

Contemporaneous also returned, this time with a handful of Jherek Bischoff pieces. A brief, lushly neoromantic overture of sorts and a subdued, unexpectedly somber pavane were the highlights.

Pianists Emily Manzo and David Friend performed the day’s first genuinely herculean numbers, a pair of long, hammering, menacingly Lynchian compositions from the 80s by the late Monk collaborator and composer Julius EastmanJace Clayton‘s echoey sound mix subsumed the music in places – as a musician would say, he didn’t have a feel for the room – but all the same he deserves props as an advocate for Eastman’s frequently harrowing, undeservedly obscure work, further underscored by a brief, pretty hilarious skit that imagined a busy Julius Eastman section at a theme park.

These marathons typically pick up at the end and this one was no exception. Well-loved art-rock house band the Bang on a Can All-Stars stomped through the Trans-Siberian Orchestra style bombast of JG Thirlwell‘s Anabiosis, then vividly echoed the otherworldly, watery ambience inside the old Croton Aqueduct via Paula Matthusen‘s Ontology of an Echo. Wolfe introduced the night’s big showstopper, Big Beautiful Dark & Scary as a contemplation on the possibility of personal happiness amidst disaster, its ineluctable, anguished, frenetic waves just as viscerally thrilling as they were chilling for the New Yorkers in the crowd who’d lived through 9/11 and the aftermath that the piece portrays.

After a long lull, the ensemble returned in a slightly augmented version for Louis Andriessen’s Hoketus. It’s a diptych of sorts: two maddening, claustrophobically minimalist melodies varied only by constantly changing rhythms, a study in authoritarianism and the human impulse to resist it. When clarinetist Ken Thomson led the ensemble with a leap into the animated second movement, it seemed that the people would win this fight. Or do they?

Gordon supplied the marathon’s coda, Timber, which turned out to be the shadow image of the Andriessen work, a wry, bone-shaking exploration of the kind of fun that can be had within a set of parameters. Where Andriessen set rules, Gordon offered guidelines. Played by sextet Mantra Percussion on a series of amplified sawhorses, it worked every trope in the avant garde stoner repertoire. Trancey motorik rhythms? Deep-space pulsar drones? Overtones at the very top and also the very bottom of the sonic spectrum? Innumerable false endings, good-natured exchanges between the players (who’d memorized the entire, practically hourlong score) and a light show triggered by just about every crescendo? Check, check, check and doublecheck. Gordon may be best known for his gravitas and otherworldly intensity, but his music can be great fun and this was exactly that. With its rolling drones echoing throughout the atrium like a distant storm on the Great Plains, it sent the crowd out into the night on a note that was both adrenalizing and soothing. It’s hard to imagine anything more fun to wind up a Sunday night in June in New York.

Bio Ritmo Take a Great Nuyorican Sound to New Places

Isn’t it cool that a great salsa band from out of town is playing their upcoming New York show in Bushwick? Sure, reggaeton long ago replaced salsa as the sound you’d be most likely to hear in the neighborhood – at least until the invasion of prissy trust fund kids and their insufferably inept indie bands. It’ll be interesting to see how many neighborhood people who haven’t been priced out yet come out for Bio Ritmo‘s show on June 28 at 8 PM at Radio Bushwick.

The Richmond-based band have made a career out of keeping the psychedelic sound of the early 70s Fania bands alive. They’ve got a new album, Puerta del Sur, due out later this summer; their most recent trip into the studio resulted in La Verdad, an album of “trippy, hypnotic, sometimes fiery elements of Ethiopian jazz, Afrobeat and dub,” as New York Music Daily’s sister blog, Lucid Culture reported back in late 2011.

Most recently, the group has reissued their similarly psychedelic 1995 debut, Introducing Bio Ritmo, which includes a couple of bonus tracks from La Verdad: the wryly tuneful, funk-tinged title cut, and La Muralla, pairing echoey Fender Rhodes electric piano against a blazing horn section. It’s inspiring to hear how ambitious the band was – remember, this was back when the internet was barely more than Amazon and the Well and people still bought albums in stores. Keyboardist/bandleader Marlysse Simmons is already showing signs here that she’ll become one of the alltime great noir players (she’d really blossom later on with the creepy boleros of Bio Ritmo side project Miramar), most notably with her spiraling, menacing piano chromatics on the eleventh track here, Asia Minor.

Among the best cuts on the album, there’s the bristling El Piraguero, with its shout-outs to Puerto Rican pride; the slow, slinky original version of Lola’s Dilemma, which they’d reprise with dub echoes on La Verdad; the seven-minute Muchacho, with its dark horns and alternately playful and sternly intense piano from Simmons; Lisandra, which spices a blend of early 70s salsa dura and 80s salsa romantica with woozy P-Funk keys; and Tu No Sabes, a stinging early venture into the Middle Eastern sounds the band has explored at greater length throughout their career. Simmons, singer Rei Alvarez, percussionists Hector “Coco” Barez, Bob Miller and Giustino Riccio, trumpeter Mark Ingraham, tenor saxophonist John Lilley, trombonist Toby Whitaker and bassist Edward Prendergast are on fire throughout the rest of the material. Since then they’ve never slowed down.

Enticing, Brooding, Pensive Cello Songs from Meaner Pencil

Take a look at art-rocker Lenna Pierce, a.k.a. Meaner Pencil busking on the Metropolitan Avenue G train platform. She’s imperturbable. A woman sits down next to her, completely oblivious, and Pierce doesn’t flinch. She keeps on singing, quiet and steady and resolute behind her blonde bangs and dollar store glasses. This is how you do it if you’re talented and not trustfunded and want to make a living in the subway in 2014.

With the elegant, sometimes spectacularly soaring voice of a chorister and eclectic chops on the cello, Pierce’s latest album, Senza Amanti is streaming at Bandcamp. The title has a double meaning Pierce obviously relates to – it’s Italian for “without lovers,” but is also the term for the tradition where a conductor’s instructions for classical music performance are given in Italian, i.e. “fermata” rather than “full stop”. Pierce is also emerging from the subway tunnel for a solo show at around 9 PM at Goodbye Blue Monday on June 27.

Most of Pierce’s songs here are sad and troubled. She uses her voice as an instrument just as much as her cello, often contrasting her nonchalantly breathtaking flights to the upper registers against murky, wounded cello atmospherics or simple, catchy riffs that she plays as live loops, more or less, or develops variations on them. When she’s at her most operatic, the lyrics tend to get subsumed by the music; the album is best appreciated as a mood piece. Ultimately, what she’s offering – especially in the subway – is solace amidst chaos. Which, when you think about it, is what music is all about, isn’t it?

The opening track, Lisa’s Knife, sets the stage: Pierce takes a simple, catchy blues lick and makes stately chamber pop out of it. She doesn’t even sing lyrics until it’s almost over. Her Name Was Nebraska has an apprehensively hypnotic, methodical pulse and some raga riffage as it goes along. The swooping Bar-fly, Turtledove is a springboard for Pierce’s spine-tingling vocal range. Several of the tracks alternate stark low-register washes with incisive pizzicato picking. Bits and pieces of lyrics percolate through the mist: “There was a time I needed help and no help came,” Pierce intones toward the end of Blue Bruise.

The song titles reflect Pierce’s cynical sense of humor. Evanly Hevangelical seems to be a reflection on somebody who’s not exactly a saint. Subterranean Sympathy for New York City is an unlikely lullaby. Hooligan House 2012 recalls a march to Union Square with both friends and “assholes.” The album’s most sparse song, Love’s Loss is also its catchiest. The rest of the album ranges from skeletal and minimalist to a long, hazy shot at an anthem. It’s a great drifty rainy-day listen.