Rachelle Garniez Releases 2015’s Best Album, a Harrowing, Richly Detailed Portrait of the Here and Now
Dichotomies run deep throughout Rachelle Garniez’s latest album, Who’s Counting, streaming at Spotify. Optimism and despondency, irresistible laughs and corrosive anger sit side by side. The music is spare, uncluttered and for the most part unhurried. Everything counts for something, even the subtlest touches. Funny/creepy hospital room sonics channeled via the highest stops on her accordion; faux sleigh bells that could be cruelly faux-Christmasy, or maybe just guardedly festive. Even the jauntiest tracks have a dark undercurrent, while the darkest ones are understated, even gentle. While the music draws on many retro styles – saloon blues, Louis Armstrong torch song, Brecht/Weill cabaret, 19th century Celtic New York balladry – it’s irrefutably in the here and now, an artifact of a year of refugee death marches, tribal bride murders and the devastation of Garniez’s beloved Manhattan as the stampede to cash in on what’s left of the real estate bubble leaves entire neighborhoods trampled and crippled. Garniez relates all those narratives in many voices: an innocent, a bawdy belter or a shellshocked witness, sometimes a parade of personalities in the same song. As a bittersweetly accurate portrait of the here and now, it is unrivalled in 2015 and for that reason is the best album of the year, maybe the best album in a career that includes more than one brilliant one.
Garniez’s work over the past fifteen years or so is not an easy read. Very often, the window of interpretation hangs open, as far as the degree of subtext or sarcasm lurking in the shadows underneath. On the surface, Medicine Man – a remake of a sultry hokum blues strut originally released on her 2003 Luckyday album – builds a steamy atmosphere fueled by the gusty brass of Hazmat Modine, of which Garniez is also a member. A closer listen reveals a thinly veiled plea for some relief from a lingering angst. Little Fish – a Cajun-flavored duet featuring the Hazmats’ banjo player Erik Della Penna, originally released on Garniez’s eclectic 2000 album Crazy Blood – is addressed to a missing person who might be missing for keeps. And the album’s most irrepressibly dancing number, Flat Black – a simple bass-and-vocal duet that looks back fifty years to Sarah Vaughan’s work with Joe Comfort – is a blackly droll look forward to the singer’s funeral, where everybody’s going to “sit shiva by the river, have a little chopped liver.”
That’s the bright side of the album. The dark side is harrowing, even devastating. Garniez plays spare gospel-tinged piano against an ambered horn chart on the title track, in the moment in every conceivable sense of that phrase. She maintains that mood, taking it up a notch for awhile, on the vivid, photorealistic New York Minute, on one hand a fond reminiscence of a Manhattan childhood in the days before helicopter parenting, on another a very uneasy portrait of a budding eight-year-old existentialist. And Manhattan Island – one of several miniatures interspersed enigmatically between songs – grounds the current speculative crisis in centuries of history.
The album’s highest points are also its most brooding. The Elizabethan Britfolk-flavored Vanity’s Curse opens as a suspensefully crepuscular portrait of a dotty old lady’s well-appointed lair but quickly moves to illuminate the sinister source of all that luxe: it’s impossible to imagine a more relevant song released this year. The haunting, starkly quiet A Long Way to Jerusalem follows an ages-old Talmudic tale, recast as a shattering chronicle of women abused and tortured over the centuries. And It’s a Christmas Song (watch the cool video) offers a contrarian view that will resonate with anyone whose tolerance for corporate holiday cheer has maxed out. As the song swings and bounces along, Garniez has no problem with revelry. “If you gotta shop, please support the mom & pop,” but:
Let’s celebrate the birth
Of redefining worth
Start a full-scale reconstruction
Of a flawed global economy
Take down corporate tyranny
Promote local autonomy
It figures that Garniez would wait til the album’s last song to finally drop her guard and let her message resonate, pure and simple. That’s a Christmas present worth sticking around for. Garniez plays Barbes on January 7 at 8 PM, then she’s back there on January 17 at 7:30 PM.