New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Month: February, 2019

The Julia Wolfe String Quartet Cycle at the Jewish Museum: A Major Moment in New York Music History

This past evening a sold-out crowd at the Jewish Museum witnessed what could have been a once-in-a-lifetime event: the first-ever live performance of the Julia Wolfe string quartet cycle on a single bill. On one hand, it’s kind of a shock that it took the composer’s own organization, Bang on a Can, to stage it. Sure, Wolfe’s string quartets are taxing to play, but so are Bartok’s, and hundreds of groups play the Bartok cycle. And Wolfe’s profile has never been higher: it’s hard to remember the last time the New York Philharmonic built a weekend around a work by another living composer, as they did with her epic cantata Fire in My Mouth back in January.

Assuming she writes another string quartet or two – hardly out of the question – putting five or more on a single program would be next to impossible, which would make this night even more historic. Wolfe was in the front row and revealed how she’d been moved to tears by Ethel’s performance of the most recent work on the bill, Blue Dress for String Quartet, so it made sense to give them the herculean task of playing all four this time. And the group captured lightning in a bottle.

It took immense stamina and persistence to get it all in there. All four of the works employ long, slowly mutating, sometimes utterly hypnotic passages of emphatic, insistent quarter notes (and often considerably faster volleys as well). Over the course of almost two hours onstage, violist Ralph Farris, cellist Dorothy Lawson, violinists Corin Lee and Kate Dreyfuss (the latter subbing for Kip Jones) didn’t miss a beat, no small achievement.

They began with Blue Dress, which, like so much of Wolfe’s work, draws on Americana, in this case the old folk song Little Girl with a Blue Dress On. Wolfe cautioned the crowd that this particular girl is fierce. Echoes of Philip Glass and Louis Andriessen blended into a twisted quasi-Appalachian sound world with relentless intensity and sarcasm that bordered on savagery, as the old folk tune filtered in and out of the picture. There was some wry clog-dancing and singing too. Little Girl? As if! This may have been state-of-the-art, end-of-the-decade serious concert music, but the ethos was vintage punk rock.

The other string quartets dated from the 90s. Dig Deep, Wolfe explained, was all about searching, written at a time when she felt “crazy” because she was having trouble trying to conceive. The ensemble worked the contrasts between wisps of hope and crushing reality with a knowing soberness grounded by Lawson’s pitchblende cello resonance. Lee got to give the music a breather with a Vivaldi-esque passage; Farris delivered the ending with cold matter-of-factness.

Four Marys, Wolfe said, was inspired by a Jean Ritchie murder ballad as much as by the “crude, crying sound” of the only stringed instrument she plays, the mountain dulcimer. Creeping up and around a central note, sometimes with slow, lingering glissandos, the ensemble maintained a lush intensity.

They closed with Early That Summer, the one piece that most closely foreshadowed Wolfe’s harrowing Cruel Sister string piece from 2012. She’d written this one in Amsterdam after reading Kai Bird’s The Chairman: John J. McCloy and the Making of the American Establishment, a prophetic book to encounter in the era of GATT, NAFTA and corporate sovereignty over democratically elected governments. Wispy microtones and slow upward trajectories built white-knuckle suspense, a relentlessly troubled mood amidst the calm, Lawson’s cello a stygian river of sound.

The monthly Bang on a Can concert series at the Jewish Museum continues on May 23 at 8 PM with avant garde vocal icon Meredith Monk and two members of her Vocal Ensemble, Katie Geissinger and Allison Sniffin; tix are $20/$16 stud/srs and are still available as of today but probably won’t be much longer. Ethel’s next gig is March 16 starting around 5 PM at the balcony bar at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; the performance is free with museum admission.

Trumpeter Steph Richards Brings Her Devious Sense of Humor to Lefferts Gardens Saturday Night

The cover illustration for trumpeter Steph Richards’ solo album Fullmoon (streaming at Bandcamp) shows an open palm holding what could be a postcard of the moon – a pretty warped moon, anyway. But when you click on the individual tracks to play them (on devices that play mp3s, anyway), it turns out that’s a phone the hand is holding, and you’re taking a selfie. Truth in advertising: Richards’ music is deviously fun. She’s bringing her horn and her pedal to a show at the Owl on March 2 at 9 PM; ten bucks in the tip bucket helps ensure she’ll make more appearances at that welcoming, well-appointed listening room.

The album’s opening track, New Moon is based around a catchy, repetitive two-note riff, spiced with gamelanesque electronic flickers via Dino J.A. Deane’s sampler, with unexpected squall at the end. The second number, Snare develops from a thicket of echo effects, insectile sounds and breathy bursts, to a wry evocation of a snare drum. Then, with Piano, Richards moves from desolate, echoey, minimalist phrases to wryly cheery upward swipes: the title doesn’t seem to have anything to do with either the instrument or the dynamic.

The coy humor of the atmospheric miniature Half Moon introduces the album’s first diptych, Gong, which develops into a querulous little march, then a weird kaleidoscope of polyrhythms. Timpani doesn’t sound anything like kettledrums; instead, it’s a funny bovine conversation that all of a sudden grows sinister – although the ending is ridiculously amusing. The album ends with the title track, Richards developing a complicated conversation out of late-night desolation in the first part, then a barnyard of the mind (or the valves). Her levity is contagious – and she’s capable of playing with a lot more savagery than she does here, something that wouldn’t be out of the question to expect Saturday night in Lefferts Gardens.

Slavic Surrealism, Somber Strauss and Bittersweet Beethoven at Lincoln Center

This past evening the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center staged a program on themes of endings and goodbyes. In various configurations, eight musicians contributed to a final work in a specific genre, an elegy, and what could have been a fervent wave goodbye to a composer’s beloved home turf. Each was performed in unusually high-definition, sometimes revelatory detail. What appeared to be a sold-out crowd agreed that braving late-winter bluster for a show like this was infinitely more rewarding than snuggling with a handful of favorite records (or with youtube).

Pianist Gilbert Kalish and violinist Bella Hristova opened the night with a remarkably straightforward take of Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No. 10. It seemed just a hair slow. That turned out to be a wise choice, considering that other musicians often romp through the whole thing since the piano part does not require typical Beethovenesque virtuosity (the duke who commissioned it also played the premiere). Likewise, Hristova held back on the vibrato until the hymnal second movement was underway: the effect turned what could have been sentimentality into genuine bittersweetness. Constant exchanges between piano lefthand and violin were coyly amusing, in contrast to the first hint of an ending in the third movement, which Kalish imbued with a distantly desperate quality, raising the ante with sudden extra vigor.

The centerpiece was an absolutely shattering performance of Richard Strauss’ Metamorphosen, arguably the saddest tone poem ever written. Violinist Arnaud Sussmann, violists Mark Holloway and Richard O’Neil, cellists Dmitri Atapine and David Requiro, and bassist Xavier Foley joined Hristova to build a relentless, aching, meticulous interweave that finally came full circle, fueled by the cellos’ plaintive angst. Here as elsewhere, the septet’s attention to minutiae was such that Strauss’ cell-like permutations echoed Bach as much as they foreshadowed Philip Glass. At the end, the audience sat in stunned silence for what felt like a full thirty seconds before breaking into applause.

Dynamics bristled and sparkled throughout the night’s coda, Dvorak’s Trio in E Minor for Piano, Violin and Cello, best known as the Dumky. Joined by Sussmann and Requiro, Kalish seemed to revel in the suite’s almost gleeful phantasmagoria. The savagery in how the composer takes an initial, cloying dance theme and then twists it through a funhouse mirror had a magnetic effect on the trio, especially when Kalish decided to pick up the pace. The numerous contrasts, particularly a silken ending to the adagio second movement, were striking and unselfconsciously poignant…or just plain funny. Sussmann and Requiro approached their solo spots with a straightforwardness that matched the Beethoven. It wouldn’t be fair to call the ending diabolical, but it was close, a devilishly good time. Glistening with Slavic chromatics, if this was a goodbye, it could have been a salute to everything Dvorak loved about his home country…and also quite possibly a snide dismissal of everything he didn’t.

Mighty, Epic Individualist Fabian Almazan Plays the Jazz Gallery This Friday Night

As a composer and pianist, Fabian Almazan has no fear of epic grandeur, big statements or rich melodicism. He doesn’t limit himself to acoustic piano, or to traditional postbop tunesmithing either. As a bandleader, he hasn’t been as ubiquitous lately as he was a couple of years ago when he released his mighty Alcanza Suite, which is streaming at Bandcamp. He’s back out in front of his own trio this Friday night, March 1 at the Jazz Gallery, with sets at 7:30 and 9:30 PM. Cover is $25.

While there’s no telling which direction Almazan is going to go in next – he’s done everything from reinventing Shostakovich string quartets in a jazz context, to playing in starry space-jazz band Bryan & the Aardvarks – the Alcanza Suite is his magnum opus so far. There’s never been anything quite like it, a towering, symphonic masterpiece that draws equally on jazz and neoromanticism while tackling many sobering themes, from the trials facing immigrants to the bright of existentialism. The ensemble here rise to the many demands on their technique, a string quartet of Megan Gould and Tomoko Omura on violins, Karen Waltuch on viola and Noah Hoffeld on cello bolstered by Camila Meza on guitar and vocals, Linda May Han Oh on bass and Henry Cole on drums alongside the bandleader.

Meza sings calmly amidst the sudden gusts of the opening number, Vida Absurda y Bella (Absurd and Beautiful Life), Almazan’s piano a frenzy of climbs and spirals in tandem with Cole’s pummeling attack. Astor Piazzolla at his most adventurous seems to be a reference point.

The second movement, Marea Baja (Low Tide) is a thoughtful nocturne, Meza’s tender vocal over wary strings, Almazan picking up the pace with his circling rivulets. As Meza moves further back in the mix, she grows more forceful. From there, Almazan’s carnivalesque chromatics enter and then give way to a big, hypnotically insistent crescendo.

Verla (Seeing It, “It”) being truth, begins as a tone poem and then becomes a moody, austere string quartet piece: this particular truth seems hard to bear. Almazan follows it with a brief solo piano passage that shifts from gentle lustre to disquiet; later on, Oh and Cole also get to contribute unaccompanied solos.

Meza returns to the mic for Mas, a fervent hope for better circumstances over airy, distantly blues-tinged atmospherics that builds toward towering angst with Almazan’s chromatic cascades.

Oh pounces and bubbles within the vast, catchy riffage of Tribu T9, Meza’s vocalese adding calm contrast to Almazan’s energetic two-handed polyrhythms. 

Rising from somber belltones to emphatically spaced minimalist gravitas, Oh’s solo introduces the sixth movement, Cazador Antiguo (Ancient Hunter). Its stern, mechanical, martial drive and creepy helicopter effects juxtapose with Meza’s resolutely sailing vocals, segueing into Pater Familias. A coming-of-age narrative without words, it’s a return to the bright/shadowy dynamic between Meza and the rest of the band. Almazan cuts loose with his most gorgeously glittery solo of the entire record before a grim march returns, then gives way to a jubilant Meza coda.

Este Lugar (This Place) is the suite’s most epic segment, a lush, dynamically shifting maze of counterpoint, Meza giving voice to immigrant hopes and crushing realities: the return to the relentless march theme packs a wallop. Marea Alta (High Tide) is the suite’s towering coda, Meza’s guitar chords finally punching through the symphonic, polyrhythmic web. Whether you consider this classical music, minimalism or jazz, or all of the above, this album is pretty much unrivalled, in terms of both towering majesty and social relevance, over the last couple of years,.

A Profoundly Entertaining, Interactive Night of Operatic Fun at the Edge of Chinatown

At his sold-out show last night to close a weekend of performances at the Abrons Arts Center, countertenor Ju-eh hit high notes that were as disconcerting as they were spectacular. It was a profound and often profoundly funny display of awe-inspiring technique matched with witty banter and deep insight into the relationship between audience and performer. In an era where more and more, the act onstage becomes a mere backdrop for social media posturing by wannabes in the crowd, Ju-eh’s generous interaction with the audience had unusual resonance.

He made his entrance from the side of the stage with a soaring aria by Handel over a solo organ recording. Seated centerstage, his verbal sparring partner Hwarg worked a series of mixers and laptop. Although Ju-eh was wearing a skirt, he revealed in a lengthy Q&A after the show that he didn’t choose that to be genderqueer: rather, it was a historical reference to an era when pretty much everyone wore the same robe, or the same daishiki. The rest of the outfit – plain white shirt and blue thermal socks, his hair knotted with a stick – mirrored his background as a Chinese-born New York avant garde artist who’s built a career singing western opera.

He and his collaborator call this piece Living Dying Opera: he lives to sing it, but it’s also killing him sometimes. Self-doubt quickly became a persistent theme, most poignantly portrayed via a plaintive John Dowland version of an old English air. Ju-eh’s voice reached for the rafters with an imploring wail as he crouched in the corner in the darkness, holding a simple lamp, Diogenes-style. On one hand, it’s reassuring to know that someone with such prodigious talent can also be self-critical; on the other, if this guy isn’t satisfied with his achievements, how about us mere mortals?

After the show, he explained that he always wants audiences at his performances to feel loved. That assessment in many respects makes a lot of sense, in that a lot of people go to a performance to transcend, to see themselves in the music or the narrative and come out on the other side to a better place. What he didn’t address is that audiences all too often have other, similarly self-involved reasons for going out. Whether watching something on Facebook Live and texting all your ‘friends” about it confers the same status as taking a selfie at the actual show, with the performer somewhere in the background, is open to debate.

But even with all that talent and that resume, Ju-eh remains a fish out of water, even in the rarefied world of countertenors. He explained that most operatic roles written for men singing in a soprano’s range are antagonists: they’re supposed to sound evil. Ju-eh’s voice, and his style, don’t fit that mold: they’re especially robust, an endless, thick rope ladder reaching into the clouds, with a muscular vibrato to match. Although he’s working in a range usually limited to women, he doesn’t hear his own voice as female, and he shouldn’t: it’s uniquely his.

There were a lot of very amusing, sometimes coy, sometimes disarmingly down-to-earth extemporaneous moments where he and Hwarg discussed how well, or not so well, the show was progressing. There were also points where he took crowd members and put them centerstage, then continued singing from their seats. The most haunting of those moments was when he delivered a stark, aching verse and chorus of Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child from the front row.

The after-show Q&A kept the audience as engaged as the performance itself did. The funniest revelation was that Ju-eh had come up with a brief interlude where he lay on the floor in order to give himself a breather rather than to add any kind of meaning. The man he’d pulled from the crowd to stand onstage – as “Mr. Mango” – confided that he’d encouraged Ju-eh to pick him because he wanted to find out if the other audience members had also been chosen randomly, or if they were shills. Over and over again, Ju-eh’s most existential questions of identity resonated more profoundly than anything else in this provocative encounter sponsored by the New York Chinese Culture Salon.

Darkly Compelling, Lushly Relevant Orchestral Works in Washington Heights

This past evening a string subset of the Washington Heights Chamber Orchestra played a lush, majestic, sweeping, potently relevant program of works by 20th and 21st century composers. The performance validated conventional wisdom in real estate bubble-era New York: the fringes are where the most cutting-edge artists are supposed to be. Ask yourself how many members of the Philharmonic actually walk to work: it’s a fair bet that a good percentage of this talented ensemble did.

The group echoed Music Director Chris Whittaker’s poise on the podium, at least with as much poise as a string section can maintain playing distinctly troubled music. The central theme was Japanese, comprising works by composers with Japanese heritage, setting up a harrowing look back at the aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Fukushima wasn’t addressed, but it might as well have been, considering how plaintive and elegaic the overall ambience was.

Both the opening and concluding pieces, Kenji Bunch’s Supermaximum and Christopher Theofanidis’ A Thousand Cranes opened with percussive rustles from the bass section, a neat pairing. The former was an alternately kinetic and stark interweave of 19th century gospel-inflected pentatonic melody and more distinctly Asian motives. Permeated with the call-and-response of chain gang chants, it spoke for itself as a reminder of how little has changed in over a century.

The showstopper was an understatedly aching, enveloping take of Toru Takemitsu’s Requiem For String Orchestra. Moving gracefully from an austere pavane to stabbing close harmonies that foreshadow Julia Wolfe’s work, and then to to cellular Glass-ine phrasing, the group locked in on its relentless, overcast atmosphere.

Karen Tanaka’s Dreamscape suite often had a similarly circular but more distinctly nebulous effect, their group parsing its starry pointillisms and sparely memorable hooks with delicacy to match their lustre, harpist Tomina Parvanova and concertmaster Mark Chien tracing lively comet tails and deep-space bubbles.

Theofanidis’ piece was inspired by the Japanese tradition of making paper cranes. As the myth goes, producing a thousand of them allows for a wish to come true. That activity became a meme among those stricken with radiation poisoning and all kinds of other horrible illnesses after August of 1945.

The triptych is a hard piece to play, partly because it covers so much ground, emotionally speaking. There was unexpectedly calm jubilance in the opening overture of sorts, which disappeared as reality sank in. The group nimbly tackled the precisely dancing pizzicato section and then let the mournful washes afterward linger. The steady procession up to a decidedly unresolved ending was just as poignant.

The orchestra are staging monthly concerts  this spring: the next one is March 23 at 3 PM at at Fort Washington Collegiate Church, 729 W 181st St. just up the hill from the 1 train, with works by Korngold, Britten, Anna Clyne and Michael Torke. Admission is free; $25 gets you into the reception afterward and for the rest of the season as well.

Another Majestic, Darkly Eclectic Album and a Joe’s Pub Show by Pianist Guy Mintus

Pianist Guy Mintus’ 2017 album A Home In Between ranked high on the list of that year’s best releases here. His latest one, Connecting the Dots, with his trio, bassist Dan Pappalardo and drummer Philippe Lemm, is streaming at Soundcloud. It’s every bit as eclectic, and even more epic and playful. His next gig is on Feb 28 at 7 PM at Joe’s Pub with haunting, rapturous Palestinian singer Mira Awad; cover is $25.

That show says a lot about where he’s coming from: he’s also transcribed a lot of classic Moroccan gnawa music for piano. The new album’s first track is Koan, which in many ways is Mintus’ resume. It’s a clever, shapeshifting number that begins as a cinematic title theme of sorts, then shifts back and forth between a gospel/blues waltz and neoromantic grandeur punctuated by ominous, carnivalesque syncopation.

Although Little Italy also gets a bass-and-drums intro that offers even more of a hint of suspense, Mintus digs into this genial nocturne with jaunty flourishes offset with more of the glittering gravitas that’s become his signature sound – and finally as much of a pianistic explosion as anybody’s recorded in the last several years. Mintus must have had an especially epic San Genarro festival experience at some point.

Pappalardo and Mintus joust amiably as the distantly Indian-flavored Samarkand gets underway, then suddenly they’re in waltzing neoromantic territory again. For awhile, it’s more spare and kinetic than most of the other tracks…but then Mintus brings in the storm.

The lone number from the standard jazz repertoire here, Horace Silver’s Yeah has strong echoes of Monk as well as Frank Carlberg in particular phantasmagorical mode. Hunt Music, a setting of a Rumi text as a brief, nocturnal tone poem, features guest vocals from chanteuse Sivan Arbel. The trio dance through the folksy intro to Dalb, Pappalardo adding a sott-voce solo: it’s the album’s most lighthearted number.

The elegantly incisive Asfour brings to mind the groundbreaking work of Lebanese pianist Tarek Yamani: this dusky gem is over too soon. Nothing New Under the Sun, a deviously Monkish blues, has a subtly altered swing. Mintus closes the album with two tunes drawing on his Israeli heritage. The first, Avenu Malkelnu is a tone poem with a muted, somber opening centered around guest Dave Liebman’s brooding alto sax solo; then Mintus builds a thorny thicket around it, his crushing lefthand attack driving it home. Mintus sing the second, Haperach Begani, a catchy, anthemic, chromatically edgy bounce from the catalog of the late Israeli Yemenite singer, Zohar Argov.

Revelry with Glenn Crytzer’s Savoy 7 at Symphony Space

This past evening. even though Symphony Space seemed to be sold out, it was a little strange not to to see the usual Thursday night crowd of dancers who pack the floor in front of the stage.

That’s right: dancing at Symphony Space. It’s a thing.

Serenaded by the period-prefect early 40s-style originals of guitarist Glenn Crytzer’s Savoy 7, a lone young woman in a red dress twirled, schooling everybody in the house: she really knew her  moves. A middle-aged guy, who obviously didn’t, joined her, but he was game, and he hung in there and got a personal swing dance lesson for nothing. A few other couples went out onto the floor, but it was clear that nobody was going to be able to keep up with the vermilion vixen.

And the music was just as good. Beyond being a rare jazz guitarist who doesn’t waste notes, Crytzer is very funny. Throughout over an hour and a half onstage, the band romped through one trick ending after another, along with innumerable, coy, vaudevillian exchanges that only once in awhile went completely over the top.

Crytzer explained that the model for this band was Benny Goodman’s 1940-41 Septet with Charlie Christian on guitar. True to form, Crytzer was especially chill throughout the show, limiting his solos to maybe a couple of bars at the most. Likewise, the horns followed a dixieland-inspired pattern, with brisk handoffs where everybody was practically stepping on the next guy, like the dialogue in an early MGM talkie. Echoes of Cab Calloway, John Kirby and Louis Jordan also bounced through the songs from time to time.

Guest singer Barbara Rosene brought an understated brassiness to the vocal numbers, which were the night’s funniest songs. The best of these was a midtempo tune with a chorus of “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.” With its droll stoner call-and-response, When I Get Low I Get High – sung by Crytzer – was pretty self-explanatory. There was also a number about a melody that bedeviled him so much that he ended turning it into a meta-song, pondering that if he could have come up with a lyric as catchy as the hook, he’d be more famous than Rodgers and Hart.

Who Needs Spring, Crytzer explained, was a tune with a very short shelf life; he breaks it out right about now, then retires it until winter comes around again. The instrumentals had plenty of humor as well, from the wry, folksy travelogue Not Far to Fargo, to a sleepy Florida-Georgia highway tune, Road to Tallahassee. Crytzer explained that he wasn’t thrilled with the title of the jaunty Live to Swing until the German superfan who came up with the idea threw big bucks into the crowdsourcing campaign for the guitarist’s most recent, lavish big band double album…money changes everything, doesn’t it?

The best song of the night was I Get Ideas, an uncharacteristically brooding mashup of hi-de-ho swing and distant hints of the music’s klezmer roots, featuring the most biting solos of the night, around the horn from Rich Alexander’s tenor sax to Mike Davis’ muted trumpet, Matt Koza’s clarinet and finally the bandleader himself. The rest of the band – Bob Reich on piano, Ian Hutchison on bass and Andrew Millar on drums – chose their spots for clever cameos throughout the set

Next week’s installment of Symphony Space’s Thursday night Revelry series, as they call it, is on Feb 28 at 7:30 PM with a special intimate duo set from the core of edgy Israeli dance band Yemen Blues; you can get in for $20 if you’re thirty and under, and there are drink specials from the bar all night. Crytzer plays with his quartet at 7 PM on Feb 24 at Peppi’s Cellar at 406 Broome St. in SoHo.

Noir Songwriter Karla Rose Returns with a Vengeance

Nobody strings together chord changes with more of an unexpected wallop than Karla Rose. Considering how much film noir ambience she works, that’s no surprise. As a lyricist, she has a merciless wit to rival Elvis Costello or Hannah Fairchild. And she’s one of the three or four best singers in New York, a rare rock vocalist with a jazz background who uses her vast range for nuance rather than cluttering the songs.

A couple of years ago, Rose was on the front page here constantly, riding a wave of popularity in the wake of her brilliantly shadowy debut album Gone to Town (which she released under her given name, Karla Moheno: Rose is her middle name). Then she cut back on the shows to make a new record and regroup her well-loved oldtimey swing harmony group the Tickled Pinks. so it’s great to see her back playing out again, doing her own songs. She’s playing the Bedford at 110 Bedford Ave. in Williamsburg on Feb 27 at 8 PM.

The last time this blog was in the house at one of her shows, it was the spring of last year with the Pinks on a twinbill in Williamsburg with spectacular acoustic guitar instrumentalist Lyle Brewer. If memory serves right, her most recent 11th St. Bar show was about a year before that, and it was killer. At that point she was focusing on writing songs that a single guitar could handle since her lead player was busy with his own projects. So there was plenty of new material, a lot of it with a dreamy early 70s soul vibe, some with a grittier post-Velvets pulse and a gorgeous, bittersweetly catchy new one, Sicilian Pride. dedicated to one of her homegirls.

In the time between the first album and that point, there were a few other 11th St. Bar shows as well. One in particular that stands out (because there’s an archival tape to reference, ha) was on December 30 of 2015 with Frank LoCrasto sitting in on piano. It was a casual, intimate set, on the subdued side, an atmosphere where the faux-tenderness at the end of the phrase “Carry me up the stairs, I’ll make believe someone cares” could be delivered in a whisper and give you cynical goosebumps.

That’s a line from Mexico, a surreal and more than slightly desperate scenario set in a seedy seaside resort. The rest of the set was just as good. The duo took their time with Silver Bucket, a casually apocalyptic number with a hypnotic Smokestack Lightning sway. Time Well Spent, her shatteringly dark parable of trying to hang on in a town less and less hospitable to artistic pursuits, had a relentless calm-before-the-storm edge.

The Return – a savagely jaunty, ragtime-flavored kiss-off anthem – and the first album’s lush title track, part oldschool soul and part smutty hokum blues, were as funny as usual. The high point was an early version of the rampaging, allusive serial killer parable Battery Park, which would go on to earn Best Song of 2016 here. The two also did a Randy Newman cover and a gorgeous, understatedly plaintive, almost epic ballad contemplating distance and angst and possible defeat. In a year where the clown in office masks a more sinister agenda where far less buffoonish people really believe that it’s a national emergency if there’s no wall between here and Mexico, there’s never been more of a time for songs like that.

Throwback Moment: Gothic Music Icon Sells Out Williamsburg Venue

Very rarely does a concert in New York actually sell out. That’s why Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center offer last-minute discounted rush tickets. On one hand, it’s kind of a big deal that JG Thirlwell sold out both nights of his two-night stand at National Sawdust at the end of the month. On the other, it shouldn’t be any surprise, considering that Thirlwell has enjoyed a rabid cult following for more than thirty years, and that he’s doing a rare performance with a classical ensemble. And for all the venue’s vaunted, spacious sonics, there’s a lot more empty space there than there are seats.

So if you missed your chance to see catch this phantasmic hero of dark rock, industrial and film music, you could still hit his merch page, if it was working, and drift off to places even more disturbing than this one, with his score to the film Imponderable.

Coldly oscillating drainpipe sonics eventually give way to moody ambience; a door, footfalls and then a series of disjointed doppler effects interrupt the second track, Sleep. Houdini’s Lament has an elegant interweave of chromatic electric piano with a bittersweet baroque horn arrangement floating overhead. Then there’s a silly, synthy video game remake of a famous classical theme: too bad the Phoenix folks beat you to Fur Elise, huh JG?

Spark of Life has tolilng bells, suspenseful strings, weary vocals and the immortal couplet “Mary Wollestonecraft Shelley/Scary electrshock therapy.” From there Thirlwell weaves icy drones and echoes up to a desolate, elegaic, utterly cynical piano-and-strings theme, Faerie Bust.

For the record, there is a track here called Ectoplasm (this is where you’re supposed to go “Yesssss!), a minute forty seconds of drifty strings and distant diabolical twinkle. The Controlling Spirit seems completely untethered and lost; by contrast, The History of Magic is a stately, slowly unwinding Japanese folk-tinged theme with koto, piano, strings and neat psychedelic touches.

Giggle Water sounds for a second like it’s going to be comic relief in the form of a blithe French musette: nope. Courtly Asian elements return in in Chinese Ghost, followed by the creepy Night Nurse Chant and then Night Nurse, which is not the Gregory Isaacs reggae hit but a chilly carnivalesque nocturnal stroll. As with so much of what Thirlwell has done over the years, as far as late-night cinematics are concerned, this is hard to beat. Let’s hope he gets his website back up to speed so everybody can hear it.