New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Month: November, 2016

Jackie Venson Brings Her Searing Guitar Chops and Smart Tunesmithing to Harlem

Jackie Venson is one of the most world’s most awe-inspiring Texas blues guitarists. She also happens to be a strong, eclectic songwriter and an excellent singer with a soaring top end to her vast range, similar to how she plays guitar. Her latest album, Live at Strange Brew – streaming at Bandcamp – captures her blazing fretwork, soulful vocals and a tight rhythm section at the top of their game in the intimate confines of an Austin coffeeshop. Now, you might wonder where this amazing musician might be playing when she swings through New York this weekend. Hmmm…Bowery Ballroom? The Beacon? Or, considering that she’s a blues player, you might expect her to be at Terra Blues, or Lucille’s, or maybe Paris Blues Bar uptown.

Nope. She’s playing Silvana – the younger, yuppier, yappier Columbia-area sister to the wonderfully scruffy Shrine further north- on Dec 4 at 10 PM. If great guitar is your thing, the trip on the D train will be worth it. And if you can’t make it, you can livestream the show here

The album’s opening track, Show My Light, comes across as a mashup of 70s Stevie Wonder and another Stevie, a guy from Venson’s home state, who used to play a Strat and left us way too early. The funky Real Love pulses along with an uneasy, spare vibe until Venson hits her volume pedal and delivers a long volley of counterintuitive triplets that really get the crowd going. Then she opens the moody Lost in Time with a trippy, echoey, dub reggae edge and has all kinds of fun with her pedals before spiraling off into deep-space blues.

Venson veers between a slow, gritty boogie and shuffling Hendrix funk throughout See What You Want. One Step Forward, a brisk, straight-up blues, is a cautionary tale to Venson’s fellow guitarslingers:

We lose our freedom when we’re too scared to fight…
When we make music and fall for the dollar sign
One step forward, two steps farther behind

The allusive, death-obsessed Back to Earth is the most overtly Hendrix-inspired (i.e. Third Stone from the Sun) track here. What I Need careens between 70s stoner riff-rock and reggae, rising to some pretty unhinged tremolo-picking. Then Venson pulses through the set’s poppiest number, Instinct, echoing both All Along the Watchtower and Foxy Lady.

The slow blues Rollin’ On gives Venson a launching pad for her most dynamic, thoughtful guitar work here, finally rising to a screaming, icy, reverbtoned peak: it’s the album’s best song. “Are you awake now?” she taunts the audience as she slinks into the final number, Always Free, with its understatedly poetic, broodingly relevant urban imagery and a sizzling solo midway through.

More artists should do live albums. Do it right and you can catch magic in a bottle like Venson did here (but you have to know your material and you can’t slack off and let the producer play your instruments for you like all the indie rock boys do). And live albums are truth in advertising: your audience, and your potential audience, know exactly what they’re getting in advance. It’s hard to think of better advertising for Venson than this. 

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The Taksim Trio’s Album No. 2: Intricate, Rapturous, Haunting Beauty

One of the year’s most rapturously beautiful, plaintively lush albums is Turkish classical luminaries the Taksim Trio‘s latest release, simply titled Taksim Trio No. 2, streaming at Spotify. Baglama player Ismail Tuncbilek, clarinetist Husnu Senlendirici and kanun player Aytaç Dogan weave haunting, serpentine arrangements to get lost in. Their music’s intricacy is such that unless you listen closely, it’s often hard to tell who’s playing what. Yet the group has a conversational tightness: despite the fact that everybody’s playing a lot of rippling, spiraling notes, nobody steps on each other. The overall ambience tends to be pensive and brooding: most everything here is in a minor key. Tempos are slow and the compositions expansive, pretty much everything here clocking in at over five minutes.

The opening track, Unutmamali is one of the album’s catchiest, anchored by an uneasy, minor-key riff that eventually expands and then the band plays in unison, shifting from a twinkling, starlit lattice of individual voices to a biting hook that brings to mind the Romany party music from across the Black Sea.

Track two, Yesli Basli Govel Ordek, is a sort of a lighter variation on the opening number, lit up with gracefully sliding electric guitar chords and clarinet sailing over the bristling underbrush. By contrast, Ic Benim Icin builds off a spiky, rapidfire Turkish folk theme over a lilting guitar groove with a few artfully overdubbed layers. Seni Kimler Ani goes in the opposite direction, a wary, wounded dirge with the kanun and then the baglama’s mournfully tremolo-picked lines front and center. From there, the band picks it up with the dynamically shifting Elfa Laila, itsbrapidfire, cascading, distantly Egyptian-tinged dance motives interspersed within a windswept twilight atmosphere.

Sevda Degil follows a delicately cautious, sad tangent, wistful clarinet sailing over lingering, enigmatic guitar, incisive baglama and icepick kanun. Track 7, Naz, blends ancient, ambered baglama/clarinet lines with sparsely resonant guitar and picks up with an uneasy, dancing energy as it goes on. The band return to the fast lane, with tons of lickety-split picking throughout the catchy Kumsalda Dans, with echoes of both Brazil and Russian Romany music.

The waltz Unutamadim is a lot slower, moody clarinet contrasting with all the machinegunning string licks blazing underneath. Mahur Saz Samaisi has the album’s trickiest tempos and also its most easygoing melody, although it goes in a decidedly darker direction as it picks up. Yalan Dunya gives the band a platform to spaciously build variations on a suspenseful, unresolved riff, then they take it skyward as they speed up. They wind up the album with the hard-hitting, Hicaz Mandira, blending elements of flamenco and dizzyingly rhythmic Macedonian folk. This isn’t Middle Eastern music that’s been watered down for American hippies: this is the real deal, state-of-the-art, straight from the source. For whatever degree of wildfire improvisation may be going on here – taksim means “jam” in several Middle Eastern languages – the Taksim Trio sound like what they’re doing is completely composed.

While the group made a quick New York trip this summer and then went back to Turkey, there are two New York acts with shows coming up that fans of intricate Middle Eastern music will love. You can go to both this Saturday night if you want: at 6 PM, soulful singer Jenny Luna’s Balkan-Turkish folk band Dolunay play the first night of their monthlong December residency at Barbes. Then at 8, six stops north on the G train, the Secret Trio – virtuoso kanun player Tamer Pinarbasi, clarinet titan Ismail Lumanovski and brilliant oudist Ara Dinkjian – play Roulette at 8. Tix for that one are $30 and considering how mesmerizing that band was at their most recent show at Lincoln Center Out of Doors, it’ll be worth it.

A Slinky, Catchy New Album from Nubian Dance Band Alsarah & the Nubatones

Alsarah & the Nubatones call their music “East African retro pop.” That designation may be historically accurate, but it hardly does justice to the Sudanese-born singer and her band’s enchanting blend of slinky Middle Eastern sounds, starkly bluesy folk and propulsive dance grooves. They’ve got a new album, Manara – streaming at Bandcamp – and an album release show on Nov 30 at 7:30 PM at the Poisson Rouge. Advance tix are $12, but get ’em now – the band pretty much sold out Flushing Town Hall, a much bigger venue way out in Queens, earlier this year – and the 7 train wasn’t even running that evening.

The album’s opening track, Salaam Nubia, is basically a retro 70s disco groove with blues riffage from Brandon Terzic’s oud over clattering percussion and wickedly catchty vocal harmonies. Alsaarah’s tender but resolute vocals soar over a lush bed of strings and accordion on Alforag, a warmly propulsive love ballad. Its austere soul/blues phrasing make a stark reminder of the blues’ African origins.

Albahr follows a moody, minor-key, bluesy sway, eclectic percussionist Ramy El Aaser fueling its dancing peaks as Terzic ripples and simmers, up to a spacious oud solo. Jyan Tiban opens with Mawuena Kodjovi’s suspensefully bass and skeletal oud and builds to a trickily rhythmic, hypnotic call-and-response vamp. Terzic’s edgily dancing lines interspersed between the vocals.

The band follows the gently lilting, catchy minor-key Ya Watan and its wryly backward-masked oud with Nar, a study in dynamics with its airy psychedelic ambience bookending a scampering groove and biting oud solo. The album’s understatedly majestic, intricately orchestraed title track rides a slow pulse lit up by distant, muted trumpet contrasting with incisive, low oud and El Aaser’s misterioso tabla.

With Eroos Elnill, the group returns to catchy minor-key call-and-response, insistent syncopation and some vocal leaps from Alsarah that sound more like Bjork than anything African. Alsilah blends hints of vintage rocksteady and gospel harmony into its warmly hypnotic, undulating sway. The catchy, camelwalking bassline and interweave of voices in Fulani echo Malian desert rock, while the concluding cut, Safr Minni makes an aptly psychedelic, crescendoing coda. All of this is just as accessible as it is utterly exotic to western ears – and this band puts on a hell of a dance party live.

Beyond the love songs and the dance numbers, the Arabic lyrics often reflect on loss and longing for home. Nubian territory has had strategic value for millennia and as you would expect, has been overrun with regularity.  In the wake of mid-60s dambuilding, mass displacement followed, with thousand of migrants bringing their sounds to points further north. This music is a result of that.

A Historic Performance by Iconic Lebanese Composer Marcel Khalife and His Sons This Dec 7

Rami Khalife plays an elegantly allusive, haunting chromatic piano riff, his brother Bachar’s cymbals flicker and then the pianist goes inside, under the lid, for some otherworldly sonics echoed by the percussion. That awestruck deep-space ambience opens the brilliant, poignantly elegant new album Andalusia of Love by the great Lebanese oudist and composer Marcel Khalife with his pianist and percussionist sons, streaming at Spotify. They’re playing the Town Hall on Dec 7 at 8 PM and $35 seats are available. That’s a steep price by anybody’s standards, but consider that unless some kind of election recount magic happens, this is the last Americans will see of these guys on this continent for the next four years.

The elder Khalife knows no limits stylistically. Since his ascendancy among the elite composers of the Middle East in the late 70s, he’s played vividly bucolic protest songs, cinematic suites, lushly neoromantic orchestral themes, and some of the most poignant oud music written over the past forty years. Employing both traditional Middle Eastern and western instruments, he incorporates both European scales and the magical microtones of his native idiom throughout his diverse and individualistic oeuvre.While the arrangements on this album are somewhat more intimate than on Khalife’s titanically orchestrated 2012 magnum opus Fall of the Moon, the sound is hardly less lavish.

On the album’s opening track Rami’s extended technique on the piano is matched by the ripple of the kanun, the great oudist taking a brief, somber solo  – and then the band takes the piece flying, joyously, doublespeed. It’s victory snatched from the jaws of defeat, setting the tone for the rest of the album, a suite where pretty much every track segues into the next one. A spacious ballad, Ouhbouki, follows it, a richly spare but intricate web of piano, oud, kanun with an expressively crescendoing vocal from the bandleader, building to a characteristically pensive, plaintive swing. As the song hits a rippling peak, it segues into the scampering but similarly awestruck Ana Li Habibi.

Taratil, a spare, gracefully steady, minimalistically-flavored piano-and-drums duo is next, segueing into Nassiti, a hypnotic variation on the theme where the whole band picks it up with even more poignancy and then rises and falls through several dynamic shifts. Rami’s piano takes the conclusion, Maraya, out with a resonant. starlit unease.

The stately, brief levantine love ballad Ya Habibi gets followed by the swaying, rippling, uneasy Achtahiki, pulsing along on a distantly booming groove with the kanun and piano soairng overhead. Faracha, a tense interlude, features the piano almost fighting through a straitjacket of muffled, muted notes against the sparkling tones overhead. Nahla starts out much the same, but with vocals, and rises to a longing, majestic crescendo. Likewise, Araki rises toward a shadowy grandeur out of a tantalizingly brief, spiky kanun solo as it echoes the album’s opening.

A tolling bell motif holds firm as the kanun pulls upward, almost struggling, as Yadaik opens, rising and then quickly descending to a wary intensity. By contrast, Andalos Al Hob – a title track of sorts – is a scrambling, almost boogie-woogie take on joyous Egyptian habibi pop. The album winds up with its most epic number, Achikain, its opening contrast between muted and unmuted piano tones, briskly scampering groove and ending that’s so unexpected and symbolically charged that it’s too much to give away. The Arabic lyrics, by the late, great Mahmoud Darwish, tersely and symbolically reference an Andalucian golden age now gone but infinitely ready for a return. Middle Eastern music in 2016 doesn’t get any more eclectic or magical than this.

Trumpeter James Williams with Svetlana & the Delancey Five: Midnight at Noon at the Blue Note

“”They let you in here?” the leader of Svetlana & the Delancey Five asked the writer, scrunching up her face.

“No, they didn’t,” the writer answered truthfully. “Your trumpet player did.”

“It’s always midnight at the Blue Note,” the irrepressible swing chanteuse grinned as she took the stage yesterday, and the crowd agreed. This time out, she’d brought a big slice of New Orleans in the person of trumpeter/crooner James Williams. There are thousands of oldtimey swing bands with women out front, but what makes this band different is that they aren’t just a backing unit. And they have the advantage of the kind of chemistry that comes from playing together week after week for the better part of four years. Their latest album Night at the Speakeasy explores some of the territory that Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald worked with so much fun, and the addition of Williams gave them the chance to wake everybody up with a little taste of Mardi Gas.

With the summery neoromantic glimmer of Billy Test’s piano, drummer Rob Garcia hit the first of several devious stumbling-caveman riffs and they were off into a scampering take of I’ve Got Rhythm, with rapidfire solos from Test and saxophonist Michael Hashin, Test trading eights with Garcia. When bassist Daniel Foose soloed, he did it with horn voicings, bubbling and sliding upwards: if you absolutely must indulge yourself and solo on the bass, you want to keep the crowd entertained, right?

First joining forces with a swinging take of Someone Just Like You, the singers took a coy formula perfected by Louis and Ella to the next level. Svetlana played the ingenue, teasing Williams, and he responded by pushing further and further and kept the audience in stitches. His bursts and burbles on trumpet matched the sly soul in his growly bass voice: he played as if he had a mute even though he didn’t . It seemed that he was making up half the lyrics on the spot – he’s got the prewar vernacular and the ginmill seduction honed to a fine shine.

To his credit, both Williams and the band managed for the most part to skirt cheesiness on their take of Hello Dolly, the one number closest to the Louis Armstrong catalog, propelled by Garcia’s second-line inspired shuffle. Svetlana and the band reinvented the Beatles’ Because as stern, stark, hauntingly austere, gospel-infused late 1800s rusticity, Garcia’s chart finding new plaintiveness and poignancy in the moody McCartney melody. They followed with a briskly shuffling Lady Be Good, Williams just a little behind the beat for extra sass. Cheek to Cheek was the most ribald number on the bill, and the whole band got into the act, instrumentally at least, leaving the dancefloor pickup scene for the couple at the mic to work out. Likewise, the band eased their way into Baby It’s Cold Outside, drawing plenty of chuckles with a series of riffs from a whole slew of cheesy Xmas hits.

They wound up the set with a piano-and-vocal intro into a slowly swinging Blue Skies – Svetlana took an equally charming and challenging, stairstepping prowl through the first verse, then the group took it swinging doublespeed with lickety-split solos from Hashin and Test to send the crowd out breathless. Svetlana saved her lone swoop up to the towering peak of her register for the last line of the last chorus. She and the group are off to Israel for a little tour, then they return to New York on Dec 5 at 9 PM at their regular backyard-tenement haunt, the Back Room on Norfolk just north of Delancey. Look for the unlocked gate on the east side of the street about eighty feet up the block.

La Yegros Play a Wickedly Fun Cumbia Dance Party in Their Lincoln Center Debut

In their Lincoln Center debut Tuesday night, La Yegros bounced their way through just about every delicious flavor of cumbia on the planet. There have been some pretty awesome dance parties in the atrium space here this year, but this one seemed to have even more bodies than usual out on the floor. No surprise, considering that bandleader Mariana Yegros led the group through slinky, misterioso Lima cumbia, jauntily strutting, hypnotic cumbia selvetica, and rustic Colombian coast gangsta cumbia, with a touch of reggaeton and a little funk. Drummer Gabriel Ostertag and accordionist Nicolás de Luca opened a couple of numbers with spiraling wood flute duets over the trippy sonic morass spilling from the mixing desk along with the bass (this group doesn’t seem to bring a bassist with them when they tour the US). Meanwhile, Yegros twirled and pounced across the stage, building a fiery celebration of alegria (i.e. fun, and the title to the evening’s catchiest, most anthemic singalong).

That was the message throughout the night. Yegros introduced song after song as “being very important to us,” since the group’s irrepressible grooves first spread over the airwaves. from the native Argentina, to Uruguay and then points further north. Americans may be spoiled by instant internet gratification, but the reality is that only forty percent of the world is fully online. In the case of La Yegros, it’s heartwarming to know that a band this good can actually get commercial radio airplay at all.

Guitarist David Martinez opened the first number with an ominous, Lynchian, reverbtoned twang, later reverting to the same kind of distant minor-key allure on the group’s biggest hit, the shadowy Viene de Mi. The quartet surprised and then energized the crowd with a thumping, clattering, jungly drum-and-vocal interlude midway through their roughly hourlong set, then a little later mashed up elements of both Middle Eastern habibi dance music and bhangra in the night’s most ambitious number. Entreated back for an encore when it didn’t seem that the group were going to do one, they treated the crowd to a second take of their hit Chicha Roja, Martinez adding some bluesy metal flourishes as if to say, “I can play that rock stuff in my sleep,” de Luca firing off incisive minor-key riffage and Ostertag anchoring the song with a hypnotically thumping, circling groove while Yegros lept and spun and kept the dancers on their feet. New York’s own Chicha Libre – who pretty much singlehandedly spearheaded the psychedelic cumbia revolution on this continent – may be mothballed at this point, but this was a good substitute. And Lincoln Center impresario Meera Dugal made sure there was some Chicha Libre in a pretty rad global dance mix pulsing from the PA before the show.

The atrium space at Lincoln Center has lots of enticing shows coming up, some of them more dance-oriented, some more low-key. On Dec 1 at 7:30 PM, saxophonist David Murray leads his band performing latinized versions of Nat King Cole classics – an unlikely concept, in fact so unlikely that it could actually be pretty amazing. Then on Dec 8 Lakecia Benjamin, who’s best known as a powerhouse alto saxophonist, but also writes very cool oldschool JB’s-style funk and retro soul songs, brings her eclectic band to the space. And possibly the most eclectic of all the upcoming bandleaders here, cellist/singer Marika Hughes, brings her kinetic blend of jazz, funk, chamber pop and art-rock with her group Bottom Heavy on the 15th.

Radio Moscow’s Live in California – Best Heavy Psych Album of the Year

Do you love Jimi Hendrix? Heavy psychedelic power trio Radio Moscow, San Diego’s best export since Karla Rose, are the closest approximation for those of us who missed the 60s.

Guitarist Parker Griggs echoes Hendrix in the purest sense possible, faster than you can say “Frank Marino.” Hendrix was a noisy player, and so is this guy. He takes a whole bunch of ideas springboarded by Jimi – playing off a root note a full step below the octave; letting a phrase bleed out in a pool of hammer-ons, leaving the natural reverb all the way up, and doing all sorts of deviously trippy things with feedback – without being blatantly derivative. The band’s titanic new double gatefold album, Live in California, is streaming at youtube. As heavy psych sounds go, there’s nothing that’s been releasd in 2016 that can touch this.

Radio Moscow also distinguish themselves with a surprisingly nimble rhythm section. Where other metal bands plod, bassist Andrew Meier and drummer Paul Marrone swing, hard. The album’s opening track, I Don’t Know echoes Hendrix but with three times the amp firepower and tighter rhythm – where Jimi would stretch his strings to the point where he needed his wammy bar to stay in tune with himself, Griggs works a savagely tremoloing lefthand on the fretboard: somewhere Jimmy Page is drooling with envy. The song’s trick ending on the way out adds a cool touch.

Death of a Clown – an original, not the vaudevillian Kinks classic – opens with lightning upper-register clusters and unhinged solar flare riffs, a galloping Purple Haze of a psych funk tune. The guitar trills at the end are precise, but not so much that Griggs can’t fly completely off the handle when the time comes. Broke Down takes a turn toward vintage Sabbath, echoed by Marrone’s trailing lines, up to a lysergically fried doublespeed wah boogie.

I Don’t Need Anybody kicks off as a turbocharged Train Kept A-Rollin’ shuffle, Griggs’ acid blues anchored by trebly, distorted fuzz bass that eventually mingles with the guitar’s low strings. 250 Miles Brain Cycles, a blues, comes across as a joint homage to Hendrix’ Machine Gun and Meddle-era David Gilmour, then hits a sick boogie peak with divebombing Are You Experienced sonics. The flurry of crazed blues about 6:45 in is worth the cost of the album alone.

Before It Burns has catchy Foxy Lady riffage matched to a heavy Nektar drive – the screaming sheets of guitar sound like the acid is really kicking in hard here. Then Griggs backs off into Middle Eastern territory for a bit, over a Caravan bassline. The trip continues through rises and falls, an echoey, suspenseful interlude over growly bass as the drums tumble around a little back, up to a screaming peak and a sudden, cold ending. It leaves you breathless.

The Escape sounds like the James Gang as Hendrix might have done it, with those crazed accents at the end of the riff. City Lights is punctuated by searing fuzztone leads. Griggs really cuts loose with the leaps, screaming harmonics, divebomb effects and a nasty tremolo on Chance of Fate, one of the best and wildest tracks here. Then the band takes a detour into slowly swaying acid blues with The Deep Blue Sea.

The hard-charging, vamping These Days is one of the catchiest tracks in the set, taking the energy back up to redline, even when the band goes halfspeed during a break that gives Griggs a launching pad for some of his most pyrotechnic bluesmetal work. Thee follow the scampering boogie Rancho Tahoma Airport with the album’s most epically psychedelic track, No Good Woman, rising and falling with Griggs’ most echoey, deep-space work here. The trio close out the show tersely and emphatically with the hammering, funk-tinged riffage of So Alone.

What are the best chemicals for experiencing this album? Good acid or mushrooms, obviously; good weed too. For purposes of coming up with evocative descriptions of the tracks, an evening of black russians did the trick. As the fifth of vodka got closer and closer to empty, the trajectory of the album matched the mood – these guys definitely programmed this show, and this album, to be a party.

Ellen Siberian Tiger Bring Their Smartly Lyrical, Eclectically Artsy Rock to Fort Greene

Philadelphia band Ellen Siberian Tiger play an enigmatic blend of dreampop, growly early Pixies-style anthems, and more delicate Americana and chamber pop-oriented material, all of it with an uneasy psychedelic tinge. Most of the songs on their album I Can’t Help It – up at Bandcamp as a name-your-price download – contain elements of all of those styles.They’ve got a gig at 10:15 PM (that’s what the calendar says) on Nov 29 at the Way Station in Ft. Greene. The venue, with its yappy gentrifier bar crowd and lousy sound, isn’t the most hospitable place to see a band, but since so many people are out of town this weekend, this might be the time to do it.

The album’s opening, title track risese from an elegant web of acoustic guitar fingerpicking to a swirly, crashing, electric dreampop chorus, a mashup of Linda Draper and the Cocteau Twins, maybe, with vocals closer to the former than the latter.

“I begin to end,” frontwoman/guitarist Ellen Tiberio-Shultz intones in her cool, clear voice in Sylvia, as the song rises from a swirly/jangly dichotomy crashing, anthemic heights. With the emphatic violins of Catherine Joy Parke and Drew Percy, I Smelled the Rain is a catchy mashup of newgrass and chamber pop:

You’ve got a heart like Cinderella but a curfew that you keep
Your love goes home at midnight but I’m losing sleep
But you have no glass slipper, no test for you to take
Even if the shoe did fit how long til it breaks

Likewise, Asleep in the River takes a brooding folk noir theme and takes it toward electric Jefferson Airplane territory, lit up with drummer John Cox’s hailstorm cymbal work: it brings to mind New York’s similarly eclectic Sometime Boys. “It only takes so many words to tell the truth and half as many to tell a lie,” Tiberio-Shultz reminds acidically. “Run to the river, throw me in, see if I float.”

Cuttlefish shifts back and forth between tempos,  Cox’s spiky banjo juxaposed against lush strings. Mrs. Pontellier is a blaze of haphazard cowpunk with a joyously fun Collin Dennen bass solo midway through, while Pine Needles comes acrosss as a blend of Surrealistic Pillow-era psych-folk and unsettled Little Silver jangle. When We Grow Up has dancing pizzicato violin to light up its moodily hypnotic Randi Russo-esque ambience and segues into the album’s final, most ornately psychedelic cut, Lion Hearted, rising out of deep-space ambience toward Radiohead majesty. This album is like an artichoke, with many tasty layers and also spines that will grab you if you stop paying attention for a second.

A Lavish Double Album Explores Otherworldly, Primeval, Ancient Greek Sounds

Some of the oldest, most otherworldly and strangely compelling music in human history can be found on the Third Man Records compilation Why the Mountains Are Black – Primeval Greek Village Music 1907-60. That’s what compiler Christopher King claims, and from the sound of some of the album’s twenty-eight tracks, he’s probably right. It has the same spirit, vast historical sweep and archivist’s flair for brilliant obscurities as the Secret Museum of Mankind compilations from around fifteen years ago. The album – streaming at Spotify – is a follow-up to Don’t Trust Your Neighbors: Early Albanian Traditional Songs & Improvisations, 1920s-1930s, and it makes a good segue since most of this is  music from the interior. The majority of the material collected here doesn’t have the moody Middle Eastern microtones that made it across the water to Cyprus, the Greek islands and the Aegean coast. Instead, its dances, ballads and laments are a lot closer to the enigmatic vamps of Macedonia and deeper into the Balkans.

Many of the musicians playing these songs – eighteen of these tracks are previously unreleased – are unidentified. Like the earliest music from Africa, call and response is often front and center, between audience and musicians as well as between the musicians themselves. Every track here is at least half-improvised; some are almost completely. There are shepherds’ tunes that signal their flocks to do one thing or another; graveside laments; dirges; ballads for absent friends or lovers; requiems for cities and eras, reaffirming how relevant some of these ancient themes remain

The collection begins with the most ancient and bucolic tunes and ends with the most Middle Eastern and urban of them. Mountain dances, Aegean island bagpipe music made by expats in Florida in the 1950s, and New York immigrant zurna oboeists’ work mirror their counterparts and predecessors back in home in Athens. Romany fiddlers and Thessalonian clarinetists remind how crucial a role Greece has played in musical cross-pollination over the centuries, and for millennia before then. The lavish double gatefold vinyl release comes with fascinating liner notes and cover art by R. Crumb. It’s a trip back in time for anyone with the time and the headphones to lie on the floor and get lost in.

No Thanks

No thanks to the clown whose improbably successful run for office began as a ruse to drum up support for another shot at reality tv infamy, who then missed the opportunity to bow out semi-gracefully when it was clear that he could get what he wanted. And who then became a lightning rod for every wacko rightwing racist nutjob out there, empowering them to a degree that even Ronald Reagan never would have.

No thanks to the clueless blue-collar white voters who swept him in on a tide of hate and extremism – who’re too overworked, overmedicated and brainwashed by Fox News to realize that what he represents is the exact opposite of the change they were hoping for.

No thanks to Alexander Hamilton and his cabal of colonial banksters and slavers, who devised the electoral college as a sneaky way to keep what was then a largely rural electorate in check. Those guys wanted to overthrow King George III? They wanted to BE King George III.

No thanks to the lazy state bureaucrats who fell for the lie that computerized voting machines are somehow superior to paper ballots. Stuffing the ballot box is a time-honored tradition in authoritarian societies – why make it any easier? Unless your goal is to thwart any hope of voters asserting themselves in a genuinely democratic way…

No thanks to Debbie Wasserman Schultz and the rest of the DNC, whose voter suppression blitzkrieg came back to bite them in the ass when the absence of all the Bernie supporters who would have voted for Hillary, but couldn’t since they’d been wiped off the voter rolls during the primaries, ended up costing her the election.

No thanks to the sleazy politicos who engineered tax breaks for developers eager to raze decades-old New York tenements. displace the people who live there, and replace those sturdy old buildings with shoddy, prefab plastic-and-sheetrock condos designed for speculation rather than actual human habitation, ready to cave in or topple over in the first hurricane or tornado.

No thanks to the swindlers who market those units as viable investments. No thanks to the get-rich-quick scammers hell-bent on flipping them to the next sucker, whether that sucker might be an individual investor or an international money launderer.

No thanks to spineless Mayor Bill DiBlasio and his equally spineless minions, who claimed to see a city divided between ultra-rich and dirt poor, and promised to fix it, but caved in to the luxury real estate lobby instead.

No thanks to the greedy landlords who jack up the rent for independent businesses to the point where the only leaseholders who can afford to take over those spaces are national chains with vast wealth invested in the financial markets.

No thanks to the corporate swine who move in and displace owners who’ve done business here for decades, who’ve given this city such a richly individual, multicultural character.

No thanks to the trendoids from Boca Raton, Bloomfield Hills, Darien, Cape Elizabeth, Berkeley and every other rich suburb across the counry who just had to “do New York” for a few years and in the process turned it into a whitewashed, terminally boring facsimile of where they came from.And whose willingness to overpay for housing has resulted in an artistic brain drain out of this city unsurpassed in New York history.

No thanks to the chickenshit clubowners, who, petrified of being unable to make the rent, dumb down their programming to the point of being indistinguishable from their redneck counterparts in the suburbs. You thought Miley Cyrus cover bands, One Direction karaoke and evenings of one wannabe Facebook comedy star after another were strictly an out of town thing? Guess again. Memo to whoever books Rockwood Music Hall, Webster Hall, the Poisson Rouge, the Delancey, Arlene’s, the Hall at MP, American Beauty and for that matter, Madison Square Garden: tourists will listen to whatever you give them. Why not support good music, build a genuine scene, make a real difference and earn yourselves a place in the history books? Hilly Kristal did that and now everybody on the planet wears a t-shirt with the name of his venue on it.

No thanks to the MTA, who’ve done more to destroy live music in New York than all the greedy landlords, cowardly booking agents, sinister speculators and corrupt politicians combined. The New York City subway is in worse shape than it’s ever been in over a hundred years. Endless late-night rerouting and closures all down the line have made it impossible to get home from Manhattan to the other boroughs, let alone from, say, Bushwick to Ditmas Park or from Crown Heights to Astoria. As a result, it’s next to impossible for a new band to gain enough traction to take it to the next level. The best an artist can hope for is an endless Dives of New York tour, playing to a couple dozen people week after week and month after month in one cruddy Brooklyn or Queens room after another. It’s enough to make you wonder if there really is some truth to the rumor that Uber has paid off the MTA brass.

Thank you to the awesome, multicultural, multi-ethnic, demographically diverse people of New York, who have extended one kindness after another to an injured nightcrawler hell-bent on getting to where the action is despite the pain and the necessity of having to travel in the breakdown lane. Old ladies who’ve given up their seats on the train, young dudes who’ve held subway doors, friends who’ve offered their old crutches and canes, ushers and club managers and publicists and impresarios who’ve supplied seats and free drinks and lit up darkened stairwells with their penlights, cops and crossing guards who’ve stopped crazed Uber drivers from running down a certain blog owner shlepping across the street as the light changes – and not to forget the occasional canine who’s given a friendly wag of the tail, a concerned glance upward or, WOOAAH, a jump and a smooch on the face – you are the reason why this city is still as great as it is despite all efforts on the part of the corporate elite to destroy it. I love you all.