To what degree does being born and raised in a metropolis empower the ability to demystify it? Are native New Yorkers better able to cut through centuries of myth and romance to see the grit and blood underneath? Or does an immigrant, whether from outside the country or simply another state, have a broader perspective? Rachelle Garniez and Erik Della Penna assess those questions, and much more, on their debut collaboration, An Evening in New York, streaming at Spotify.
Both artists were born and raised here. Each songwriter’s own catalog has a rich historical sensibility: Della Penna with Americana-tinged superduo Kill Henry Sugar, Garniez mostly as a solo artist but occasionally with bands ranging from alt-country pioneers Mumbo Gumbo to ecstatic delta blues/New Orleans jamband Hazmat Modine. Each artist tends to favor subtlety and detail over fullscale drama: they make a good team. The two don’t have any shows together coming up. Garniez was scheduled play the release show for her first all-covers album, a salute to recently deceased artists including Leonard Cohen, David Bowie, Aretha Franklin and others, on March 15 at 7 PM at Dixon Place, but the show was cancelled due to the coronavirus scare.
On the duo record, Della Penna plays the stringed instruments and Garniez handles the keyboards. There’s a retro charm but also devilish levels of detail in the songs, a mix of mostly oldtimey-flavored originals and a handful of well-known New York-themed numbers from across the decades. On the surface, the title track is a charmingly waltzing turn-of-the-20th-century guitar-and-accordion duet, but there’s a wistful subtext.
Della Penna switches to banjo for his cynically empathetic lounge-lizard ballad, Neighbors, Manhattan Island, a Garniez concert favorite, languidly reflects on how cheaply the land that would become the “Empire City” was purchased from its original inhabitants (who didn’t understand they’d have to leave). Then the two pick up the pace with Talking Picture, wryly prefiguring the kind of tender reassurance an Instagram video can offer.
They follow a brisk instrumental version of the old 19th century vaudeville hit 42nd Street with a starkly resonant, anciently bluesy cover of Hazmat Modine’s surreal Viking Burial. Garniez’s Black Irish Boy is a pretty hilarious recollection of a childhood crush, as well as its aftermath. Then Della Penna takes over the mic for the Appalachian-tinged Zeppelin Song, singing from the point of view of a WWI German soldier hoping to escape the perils of combat by catching a ride on the rich baron’s contraption.
Garniez moves to the piano for a glistening ragtime-infused take of Am I Blue. Della Penna offers a fond Coney Island reminiscence with Wonder Wheel, followed by the slyly cajun-tinged High Rise. The duo put a kazoo in Coffee – as in “Let’s have another cup of coffee, and let’s have another piece of pie.” They wind up the album with their funniest song, We’ll Take Manhattan: you kind of have to live here to get the jokes, but they’re pretty priceless.
The album also includes an elegant take of Bye Bye Blackbird; a coyly spare Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen with a tastily bristling Della Penna guitar solo; and an irresistibly funny version of Irving Berlin’s hokum blues Walking Stick.