Laura Cortese & the Dance Cards Bring Their Fearlessly Imaginative, Psychedelic Americana to the Rockwood

by delarue

Violinist Laura Cortese & the Dance Cards stand out in a crowded Americana field for their fearlessness and originality. They aren’t the first to play retro acoustic roots music for string ensemble – a lot of classical types have a secret or not-so-secret fondness for folk music. Sadly, much as some of that crew are completely sincere, they don’t swing and they can’t really improvise. That’s where Cortese really shines. She and the band are playing the downstairs third stage at the Rockwood tomorrow night, April 14 at 11:30 PM; cover is $15.

Their latest album California Calling – streaming at Spotfy – isn’t particularly oldtimey, either. In fact, there’s only one tradtional tune on it. What Hem were to the zeros, Cortese and band are in the here and now. Case in point: the hypnotic opening track, The Low Hum, awash in hazy washes of strings, second violinist Jenna Moynihan anchoring the song on banjo, multi-instrumentalist Sam Kassirer adding woozy Dr. Dre synth. That it works as seamlessly as it does validates Cortese’s outside-the-box arrangement.

Cortese;s vocals infuse the album’s title track with warmth and intimacy amid a swirl of backing vocals, swelling strings and bouncy pizzicato: it’s not clear whether that spiky lead line is Cortese, Moynihan or cellist Valerie Thompson.

The women in the band – which also includes bassist Natalie Bohrn – join voices and then instruments in the lush, Celtic-tinged Three Little Words. If Irish chamber folk psychedelia didn’t exist before now, this band just invented it. There’s a fetching, Kasey Chanbers-ish break in Cortese’s voice in the bittersweetly swaying ballad Skipping Stone, with more spiky/atmospheric contrast.

The psychedelic Hold On, with its gospel allusions and trip-hop beat, brings to mind cult favorite New York Americana songstress Barbara Brousal – who’s since absconded to Boston. The band reinvent Swing & Turn (Jubilee), the album’s lone traditional tune, in much the same fashion, Cortese’s vocals soaring to the top of her register before the band finally cut loose with a jaunty reel.

The women’s four-part harmonies offer comfort in icy times in Rhododendron, which segues into Someday, sort of a more bluegrass-oriented take on Andrew Bird at his most bucolic. Stockholm, an allusive cautionary tale – “You’ve got to find a place to call home” – is another unlikely successful mashup of bluegrass and echoey psychedelia.

Bohrn’s starkly dancing bassline propels Pace Myself, a bluesy trip-hop number, edging from echoey Soft Cell new wave pop toward neo-soul. The album closes with If You Can Hear Me, a Taylor Ashton cover that doesn’t measure up to the strength of Cortese’s songwriting despite an interesting arrangement. It’s impossible to imagine anyone releasing more original album than this lately.

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