Find someone who was part of the music scene on the Lower East Side in the late 90s and zeros, before it turned into a tourist trap, and ask them who the best singer in New York is. Chances are they’ll tell you it’s Carol Lipnik. These days she’s taken her spine-tingling four-octave range to classier places. And she has a new album, Almost Back to Normal just out and streaming online which stakes Lipnik’s claim to a place in the pantheon alongside such equally distinctive, individualistic song stylists as Nico, Diamanda Galas, Laura Nyro and maybe Bjork. Lipnik is playing the album release show this Thursday, May 14 at 7 PM at Joe’s Pub on what could be a transcendent twinbill with the similarly enigmatic, lyrically-fueled, wickedly charismatic accordionist/multi-instrumentalist Rachelle Garniez. Cover is $18 and advance tix are a good idea.
The cd cover perfectly capsulizes what the album’s about. Much as Lipnik can be playful and quirky, or channel a period-perfect 70s soul vibe, ultimately this is a harrowing record. The music is elegant, just piano, strings and vocals, sometimes stark, sometimes lush. Pianist Matt Kanelos – one of the foremost improvisers in town right now – alternates between spare, lingering phrases, stately baroque-tinged lines and eerie washes of resonance enhanced by the rich sonics of the Brooklyn jazz studio where he recorded them. Likewise, violinist and producer Jacob Lawson shifts seamlessly between graceful, dancing lines and windswept orchestration, a pillowy, sometimes opaque backdrop for Lipnik’s effortlessly crystalline leaps and cascades upward.
Lipnik is Coney Island born and raised and has a special fondness for water: ”Dreaming an ocean at twilight,” is the album’s opening line. That imagery reaches Dostoyevskian proportions: it’s everywhere, and the symbolism is subtly crushing. Allusions if not direct references to Hurricane Sandy and the BP Oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico echo in the shadow of the Fukushima nuclear meltdown. To say that this is an album for our time is an understatement to the extreme.
The opening track, Oh, the Tyrrany is a gentle, brooding waltz with an interlude that sounds like a theremin but is actually Lipnik’s voice: that’s how much command she has. By contrast, the second number, Honey Pot, is a joyously sexy, anthemic blue-eyed soul tribute to getting high. The title track has a wounded, minimalist insistence, Lipnik hitting some spectacular highs, but the feeling isn’t high camp, it’s genuine angst.
Crow’s Nest is a simple but impactful piece of defiant art-rock. Sonadora Dreamer contrasts a wickedly catchy chorus with both the wariness and lustre that define this album. The elegaic Lost Days and Songs is aptly titled, awash in tersely hypnotic, steadily rhythmic atmospherics that bring to mind Arvo Part. With its chromatically-charged menace, the album’s arguably strongest and most socially relevant track is The Things That Make You Grow: “The weeds get trampled on and the weak get trampled on, so put your antlers on,” Lipnik warns. Then she and Kanelos revert to a precisely soaring, Bach-like elegance with The Oyster and the Sand and its characteristically understated but adrenalizing vocal dynamics and pervasive sense of longing.
The first of the three covers here is Harry Nilsson’s Life Line, done much the same as the 70s pop hitmaker played it solo, exponentially raising the alienation and angst of the lyric. Aother is Lipnik’s own galloping, explosive setting of cult favorite poet Helen Adam’s existentialist theme Farewell, Stranger, a showcase for low-register pyrotechnics and soaring melismas.
The album’s most puckish (and slightly carnivalesque) track is Some People’s Souls: “Some people’s souls are full of holes, that’s how the rain gets in,” Lipnik explains. It ends, appropriately, with the moody ambience of a reinvented version of the old tin pan alley song Troubled Waters. Lipnik has put out some amazing albums in the past and has them streaming at her webpage: 2008’s Cloud Girl is a masterpiece of the Coney Island phantasmagoria she’s best known for. But this one is her best album – and as strong a contender for best of 2015 as has been released this year.