New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Month: July, 2020

The Psychedelic Furs’ New Album: As Dark and Witheringly Relevant As Ever

The Psychedelic Furs have a new album. It’s really good!

Let’s be clear, this isn’t the same band who channeled horrorstricken, Joy Division-class angst with their densely atmospheric 1989 classic Book of Days – or whose guitar/organ/alto sax-fueled post-Velvets stomp had established them as one of that decade’s most important bands several years earlier. The sound of this record is closer to the former than the latter, with an even techier, postrock feel in places. Among core members from the group’s classic period, only frontman Richard Butler and keyboardist Joe McGinty remain. Butler, however, is in strong voice, and writing with the same withering punk sarcasm and bleak imagery that informed his best work. And the replacements – Richard Fortus, Jon Carin and someone who goes only by “BT” (could that be another founding member, Butler’s bassist brother Tim?) – share a commitment to the murk.

The album is titled Made of Rain; it’s streaming at Spotify. The first track, The Boy Who Invented Rock & Roll seems to be an Elvis parable, awash in vastly pulsing atmospherics and all kinds of guitar effects, Butler’s baritone a savage rasp overhead:

The druggy days the pointless pain
My glitter hips this bloodless ass
The endless days the starless dark
A bag of tears where love is gone
Her darling pays, a siren song…
The breathless air, the frozen tide
The greenless spring, the timeless night
The suicidal drunken dance
The sense that things will fall apart

In the wordless, echoey outro, the distantly reverberating flutter of a sax, and the snap and crackle of the bass rise up through the swirl.

You’ll Be Mine follows the same architecture: long, trancey verse and a big turnaround on the chorus. Butler works variations on a sarcastic “don’t be surprised” theme – this isn’t about seduction. He pushes his voice beyond where he really ought to (then again, he always did that) in the more upbeat, catchy, distinctly new wave-flavored Wrong Train. This song’s a typically imagistic narrative about a missed connection, in both senses of the word. Drugs and their dark side are a recurrent theme here.

This’ll Never Be Like Love has a slower, dreamlike sway: throughout the album, the soprano sax is a tasty, tasteful textural contrast. The band return to rainy-day washes of sound with the somber, wee-hours resignation of Ash Wednesday. Then they pick up the pace with the junkie cynicism of Don’t Believe, layers of icy chorus-box guitars filtering through the mix.

Come All Ye Faithful, a venomous minor-key kiss-off anthem, has as much of a funky bounce as this band could ever manage. No-One is a sequel, just as vicious and even catchier, set in a place where everyone’s “Dressed up in Halloween, where nobody ever screams.”

McGinty’s baroque electric piano ripples anxiously in Tiny Hands, a grimly knowing account of family dysfunction. Butler keeps that theme front and center over an acoustic-electric sway in Hide the Medicine. The band close the album with Turn Your Back on Me and its dreampop Dark Side of the Moon sonics, and then Stars, a wistfully twinkling, distantly Lynchian anthem.

Where does this fit in the Furs’ hall-of-fame lineup of albums? Somewhere in the middle. File this between the musically rich but lyrically deficient 1991 album World Outside and the 1982 classic Forever Now.

Matt Ulery Puts Out One of the Most Kinetically Gorgeous Albums of the Past Several Months

Bassist Matt Ulery is this era’s great Romantic. Nobody writes more lyrical songs without words than this guy. Blending classical elegance and art-rock intensity with jazz improvisation, his music has a consistently vivid, epically cinematic quality. His latest album, Delicate Charms is streaming at Bandcamp; just so you know, it’s not delicate at all.

Pianist Rob Clearfield gets most of the choicest, most poignant moments here, although everybody else in the band – alto saxophonist Greg Ward, violinist Zach Brock and drummer Quin Kirchner – get plenty of chances to make a mark as well. The harmonies between sax and violin sound much more orchestral than you could possibly get from just two instruments, and Kirchner nails the lush ambience with an impressive understatement, saving his tumbles and cymbal spashes for the most dramatic moments.

The opening number, Coping is a theme and variations, Clearfield’s plaintive lines giving way to achingly gorgeous sax/violin harmonies and eventually a steady, cantering drive to a decisive triplet groove through a real struggle of a coda on the wings of Brock’s dancing solo. It’s a mighty payoff.

The Effortless Enchantment has distant latin inflections and a wistful, hopeful theme set to a balletesque pulse, with a similarly hopeful upward trajectory, Clearfield’s insistence and defiant flourishes at the center.

Mellisonant has a slow, saturnine, syncopated sway lit up by Brock’s acerbic, leaping lines and Ward’s guarded optimism. A practically accusatory, lush crescendo, a wary litheness and a ferocious forest fire of a coda ensue before the band bring the song full circle.

The Air We Breathe, a restless, stormy jazz waltz, ironically has one of Clearfield’s most concise, emphatic solos and similarly vigorous work from Ward. At eight and a half minutes, Taciturn is anything but, and has the album’s most lightheartedly leaping moments before the piano and drums come crashing in.

October, with its brisk, pensive, uneasy stroll and bittersweetly rippling piano, could be the high point of the record. As usual, the bandleader’s inobtrusive drive and use of implied melody are a clinic in smart, interesting bass.

The group close the album with Nerve, glittering with echo phrases, glisteningly circular piano and finally a bittersweet bass solo (when’s the last time you heard one of those) from Ulery. Good luck multitasking to this; you might as well give up now and settle in for the ride.

Cheeery, Retro New Orleans, Dixieland and Swing Sounds From the Doggy Cats

The Doggy Cats got their start at legendary Red Hook watering hole Sunny’s Bar, and play the kind of music that the regulars who frequented the place during its Prohibition days listened to. Tetsuro Hoshii leads the sextet from behind the piano. His merry bandmates include trumpeter Aaron Bahr, saxophonist Zac Zinger, trombonist Christopher Palmer, bassist Michael Bates and drummer Rob Garcia. Their cheery, catchy debut album Daikon Pizza is streaming at Bandcamp.

Garcia kicks off the album’s opening number, Happy Dog with a nifty New Orleans shuffle, and from there the band build a lively, joyous, dixieland-flavored theme. Bourgeoisie Breakfast With Dogs is a ragtime strut with more of a lowdown feel. Howdy Cats! also has New Orleans flair, fleetingly lustrous horns and wry surf allusions from Garcia.

Fatty Catty is mostly a one-chord jam anchored by Hoshii’s insistent, syncopated lefthand, with droll low-register trombone and a tumbling drum solo. A somewhat more serious trombone solo and bluesy piano brighten up Old Clock, a midtempo swing song without words, The band get a little funkier with Dacadindan and its punchy solos around the horn.

Brass Hymn is just the horns doing what sounds like a paraphrase of Auld Lang Syne. The aptly titled, jubilantly swaying Happiest Cat has a sagacious conversation between sax and trombone. Then it’s time for trumpet and bass to do some playful jousting in Samba – that’s the name of the tune – which actually has a lot more Louisiana then Brazil in it. Hoshii’s emphatic stairstepping and scampering solo afterward take the song into much more modern territory.

Palmer’s wry muted lines rise over Hoshii’s stately gospel piano in the slow, 6/8 Sunset. The album’s most expansive track, Qui Rock is a detour into edgier postbop sounds, Hoshii’s stern, bluesy bassline variations holding it down as Zinger reaches for the sky; the terse interweave between bass and piano is an unexpectedly dynamic touch. The band stroll home to a Bourbon Street of the mind circa 1935 to close the album with Baila Biala Jambalaya. Spin this at your next houseparty if you want to keep everybody there.

An Auspicious Debut Album and a Brilliant String Quartet From Composer Reinaldo Moya

The sophistication and purposefulness of the compositions on the new album Hearing It Get Dark: Music of Reinaldo Moya – streaming at youtube – speaks to the composer’s formative years in Venezuela’s El Sistema. His music is remarkably translucent and evocative, with influences from minimalism to the baroque.

Chamber ensemble Latitude 49 play the opening piece, Polythene Sonata Product. It’s meant to evoke a factory milieu; there are disquietly starry, Bernard Herrmann-esque moments with the piano front and center, with a tantalizingly lyrical clarinet solo and insistently rhythmic, circular phrases that bring to mind Louis Andriessen.

Moya’s violinist wife Francesca Anderegg plays Bonsai, a tersely dancing, disarmingly anthemic, dynamically shifting solo theme and variations. She tripletracks herself in Violin 3.0, which began as an etude and then took on a life of its own as a bracing, uneasy study in triangulated counterpoint. Philip Glass’ string quartets occasionally come to mind here.

The Attacca Quartet play Moya’s brilliantly picturesque, understatedly haunting string quartet Hearing It Getting Dark, inspired by William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. The first movement employs a series of short, jabbing echo phrases, striking staccato/sostenuto contrasts and individual voices shadowing each other, with an undercurrent of violence.

The second depicts the fateful final day of central character Quentin Compson, someone whose existential angst has been ripe material for musical interpretation across the decades. Cellist Andrew Yee’s eerily brisk pulse captures a cruelly fleeting present, the quartet nimbly negotiating Moya’s short, practically cell-like phrases which offer neither hope nor closure for a Romantic who has lost his way for good. The coda comes earlier than you would expect.

The concluding movement is a synopsis of sorts, both thematically and structurally, reflecting the dissociative inner world inhabited by Benjy, a classic Faulknerian wise-fool character mourning the loss of his sister. Again, Moya challenges the quartet and taunts the listener with a fleeting lack of resolve. It’s a powerful novel and a powerful piece of music that deserves to be part of the standard repertoire.

Firebrand Malian Chanteuse Oumou Sangare Returns to Her Roots

Pioneering Malian singer Oumou Sangare doesn’t put out as many albums as she used to, but she’s never wavered as an advocate for women’s rights in a part of the world where that idea is still considered radical, even taboo, in some circles. Her new album, simply titled Acoustic and streaming at youtube, is a collection new recordings of previously released material, most of it from her unfortunately overproduced 2017 Mogoya album. The resulting sound, recorded live and completely unamplified, is much more traditional, although Sangare’s lyrical content has always been daring, beginning with her first Malian hit in 1989 where she chronicled losing her virginity.

That song, Diaraby Nene is even more spare than the original, set to a spare, loping beat, Sangare joined by backing singers Emma Lamadji and Kandy Guira. The album’s opening number, Kamelemba sets the stage for most of what’s to come, a muted two-chord desert rock vamp with a big crescendo from the bandleader, virtuosically circling ngoni from Brahima “Benogo” Diakité, exuberant guitar from Guimba Kouyaté and a little keening toy organ played by Vincent Taurelle

The organ is a surreal touch in the spiky, shuffling Fadjamou; Sangare’s voice is a tinge huskier than it was thirty years ago, but she hasn’t lost any power. She builds a moodily questionining atmosphere in the syncopated Minata Waraba, while Saa Magn – a requiem for Orchestre National Badema’s Amadou Ba Guindo – has breathtaking fast, delicate guitar work from Kouyaté and spare, twinkling celeste from Taurelle.

Likewise, Kouyaté’s hammer-ons in the anthemic call-and-response of Bena Bena, more somber and circumspect in this version. With its camelwalking groove and sheets of organ, KounKoun is the album’s most hypnotic track. Then Sangare and the band pick up the pace with Djoukourou, its chugging rhythm, flurrying ngoni and guitar.

The band follow a long upward trajectory from sparse airiness in Yere Faga. The album’s most musically adventurous, rhythmically challenging number is Mali Niale. Sangare winds up the album with the pensive title track from Mogoya, Kouyaté adding more than a hint of the baroque. Fans of both older and more guitar-centric Malian music ought to check this out

A Darkly Playful, Timely Jazz Reinvention of a Brooding Schubert Suite

One of the most surrealistically enjoyable releases of recent months is a highly improvised instrumental version of Schubert’s Winterreise, an allusively political protest suite disguised as a collection of lovelorn ballads. Artists as diverse as Frank Sinatra and Phil Kline have drawn inspiration from the composer’s brooding early Romanticism, but it’s hard to remember if there’s ever been a jazz interpretation of the whole thing. The collective Madre Vaca are responsible for this crazy stunt, streaming at Bandcamp. The group’s drummer, Benjamin Shorstein gets credit for this fearless, inspired, latin-tinged arrangement.

The opening number, Goodnight, is a marching blend of Cab Calloway hi-de-ho, the Beatles’ For the Benefit of Mr. Kite, and a little of the original courtesy of Jonah Pierre’s piano.

Likewise, the group play up the phantasmagoria in a strutting, waltzing take of The Weathervane, then they loosen, with the horns – Juan Rollan’s sax, Steve Strawley’s trumpet and Lance Reed’s trombone – getting nebulous until the rest of the band pull them back on track.

Shorstein and bassist Mike Perez rise from a klezmer-tinged shuffle as Frozen grows from an ambered gravitas to a postbop jazz crush with high-voltage solos from sax and piano. They reinvent Loneliness as a moodily energetic bossa, guitarist Jarrett Carter’s sage, spacious solo at the center.

Pierre and Carter converse broodingly in The Grey Head, with a chromatically-charged bristle and a more muted tropical tinge. Percussionist Milan Algood fuels the qawwali-ish groove of The Crow: once again, there are hints of klezmer, hard-charging sax and McCoy Tyner-inspired piano, and bubbly guitar solos.

The group make Monk-ish clave jazz out of Last Hope; even with the new syncopation, the underlying angst cuts through, especially when the carnivalesque atmosphere grows insistent. The version of The Stormy Morning here is a cha-cha, Reed’s chuffing trombone setting up a big coda from Strawley. Pierre’s Schubertian salsa piano is one of the funniest moments on the album.

Pierre and an uncredited vocalist do a serviceable, straight-up classical take of The Sun Dogs and close with a deviously Balkan-inflected take of The Hurdy Gurdy Man, Schubert’s disconsolate portrait of the suite’s protagonist all alone on the ice with only a homeless drunk for company.

The Winterreise has special relevance for our time as well. It wasn’t written under a lockdown, but during a serious crackdown on civil liberties under another repressive regime. Schubert changed the order of the Wilhelm Muller poems he used as text in order to fool the censors.

A Radical Japanese Firestorm Back in Print After Forty-Five Years

On September 5, 1975 guitarist Masayuki Takayanagi’s New Direction Unit played a marathon concert at Yasuda Seimei Hall in Tokyo’s Shinjuku district. Any kind of jazz beyond traditional swing was considered radical and frowned on by the authorities at the time – and by pretty much any standard, this is utterly fearless, often completely unhinged  music.  The performance was eventually immortalized on two albums, but never in the exact order of the setlist, such that there was a setlist. Finally, this landmark performance of transgressive improvisation has been reissued just as it was played, titled Axis/Another Revolvable Thing, streaming at Bandcamp courtesy of the folks at Blank Forms.

The first album comprises just three tracks: two group improvisations and a drum solo, none of which offer any idea of the carnage to come later. The conversational rapport between the players is obvious as the thicket of staccato in the opening segment coalesces in a flash: Takayanagi joined by Kenji Mori on flutes and bass clarinet, Nobuyoshi Ino alternating between bass and cello and Hiroshi Yamazaki on drums. This is a jungle, a brisk worker ants’ round-robin of short exchanges. extended flurries and jaunty echo effects punctuated by Mori’s leaping flute. Takayanagi plays without a hint of effects, mostly cello-like pizzicato. never really approximating any kind of traditional melody. It’s as playful as it is purposeful. Gabor Szabo in especially terse mode comes to mind. No wonder the band saw fit to release it.

Devious poltergeist accents and coy humor pervade the second improvisation amid lots of space. The colorful drum solo is basically a synopsis of what’s happened up to this point, and as quickly becomes clear, Yamazaki has tuned his kit to continue a couple of simple, catchy two-note themes from the previous piece. Drama and suspense prevail, no small achievement.

The second disc is where the inferno starts, both Takayanagi and Nobuyoshi conjuring evil sheets of feedback, often receding back to a Shinto temple of the mind for minutes on end. It’s basically the shadow side of the first record, with toxic white noise from Takayanagi’s wah pedal, Yamazaki walking a tightrope expertly between mystery and mayhem. Ironically, Mori, the adventurous sprite of the first album, holds the center blithely as all hell breaks loose around him. Finally, he breaks free with one shriek after another.The feral 23-minute coda is to die for, if you like this kind of noise.

A sonic portent for this fall’s lockdowner blitzkrieg when it’s clear that COVID-19 is gone and is not coming back, and the lockdowners have to find a new excuse to keep us imprisoned? We have a choice in this, folks: it’s time to take off the mask and take our society back. or else.

Rewardingly Dark, Insightful New Interpretations of Beethoven and Ligeti String Quartets

There’s a point toward the end of the Jupiter String Quartet’s new performance of the first movement of Beethoven’s iconic String Quartet No. 14, Op 131 where suddenly a series of echo effects kick in. One is strikingly quieter than the other. What a stunning contrast, and a stunning insight. It’s hard to think of another quartet who have seized on that particular phrase so dynamically – and they reprise that toward the end of the piece.

Obviously, the group went deep under the hood and came away with an interpretation that even in the rarified world of virtuoso classical music is especially meticulous. It’s the first piece on their new album Metamorphosis, streaming at youtube. Even if you’ve heard other quartets do it a million times, this one is worth discovering.

They approach that first movement with wistfulness but restlessness: overall, this recording in general tends to be faster and more vigorous than is commonplace, underscoring the piece’s persistent unease and, in places, unselfconscious angst. The group – violinists Nelson Lee and Meg Freivogel, violist Liz Freivogel and cellist Daniel McDonough – also employ a more old-word, vibrato-laden touch, especially early on.

The subtle differences in the levels of the individual voicings in the second movement are equally revealing; unlike how some other quartets play it, this is more of a sway than a march. The momentary third movement is an emphatic launching pad for the next one’s expressive resilience, particularly in its evocation of Bach, persistently jabbing, insistent pizzicato and staccato, and a whispery setup to the song without words afterward.

Movement five is quite the romp, at least when the composer’s not threatening to send everybody home from the party, a breathtaking contrast with the sudden sorrow of the sixth. Reckless abandon is not what most people would expect, but there’s some of that in the wary, marching phrases of the conclusion.

György Ligeti’s Holocaust-themed String Quartet No. 1 seems like an unlikely companion piece, although it follows a similar trajectory. And this version is equally picturesque, if in a more overtly grim sense,  A violin wanders woundedly through nebulously rising wafts of battlefield smoke. Groupthink seems to plague the menacing authority figures here; aghast chromatic runs give way to muted shock and hope against hope. The demands of the piece on the quartet’s extended technique are daunting, and they negotiate those microtones, and shrieks, and incessant pivots, with the agility of a fugitive from fascists on the prowl. We may have to do the same, if we fail to stop ‘trace and track,” in moments where the only music is sirens or the screams of children torn from their parents.

The DriverX Soundtrack: A Crazily Diverse College Radio Style Playlist

, Lili Haydn and Marvin Etzioni‘s soundtrack to the 2018 film DriverX – streaming at youtube – is a long one, with a grand total of twenty tracks. Even for a film score, it’s especially eclectic, everything from soul to powerpop to uneasy set pieces. Etzioni plays mostly the good-cop role here, showing off his multistylistic erudition, while Haydn gets to be bad cop with her stark, troubled instrumentals.

Her brief main title theme is a surreal mashup of Central Asian folk and sinister oldtimey swing. Etzioni pulls a first-class oldschool soul band together for Oh Glory Be, sung with gospel passion by Helen Rose. The Model rip through a brief powerpop sprint; a little later, Etzioni plays a grimly amusing Dylan spoof on ukulele.

Talon Majors sings a turbulent, Amy Winehouse-ish neosoul tune. The Satellite Four prance through a long series of variations on a famous Shadows surf theme. Danny Peck takes over the mic on Haydn’s breathy, Orbisonesque Nashville noir ballad I’m Here, which she reprises at the end, Julee Cruise style.

Etzioni’s tense soul-blues epic Trouble Holding Back slowly rises to a jaggedly haphazard guitar solo; then he goes into low-key, flinty olschool C&W with Hard to Build a Home. He sticks with gloomy Americana in Miss This World.

Haydn’s other contributions include a brooding violin and acoustic guitar interlude; a hazy trip-hop tune; a bit of psychedelic baroque pop; a dubby, twinkling nocturne; some haunting instrumental folk-rock and a ridiculous descent into EDM.

Courtney Marie Andrews Explores a Sea of Heartbreak

On the cover of her new record Old Flowers, Courtney Marie Andrews stands all alone in a vintage housedress, out in a field in the middle the night. She looks really sad. This is a concept album – streaming at Bandcamp – about being the bad guy in a relationship, and the consequences. It’s Andrews’ quietest, sparest, most intimate and plainspoken release to date, although it could have been more of all of those things if it hadn’t been overproduced..

She opens it with Burlap String, a slow, mostly acoustic country waltz awash in regret and spare sheets of guitar. Guilty, a cheater’s brokenhearted confession, has steady piano twinkling overhead and an unexpected, tasty bass solo. The music follows the same pattern, but more sparsely, in If I Told.

A haze of ebow guitar rises behind the gospel piano of Together or Alone; at this point in the narrative, Andrews seems like she’s gearing up to turn the corner. The martial drum flurries of Carnival, an even more minimalistic piano ballad, underscore the fear of never being able to find a relationship again.

Andrews puts a trip-hop beat on the album’s title track, which you’d think would be completely be out of place, but resonant gospel piano chords hold the song together: “You can’t water old flowers,” she laments. Break the Spell has a slowly waltzing blend of Mazzy Star haze and stark, oldtimey accents, then Andrews picks up the pace with It Must Be Someone Else’s Fault, the album’s best song and closest thing here to a 70s country classic.

She goes back to echoey piano-based trip-hop for How to Get Hurt and closes the record with Ships in the Night, a graceful, distantly gospel-tinged gesture of forgiveness. In general, these songs don’t have the sharply metaphorical focus of Andrews’ earlier work, and the glitchy electronic touches become grating after awhile. This album ultimately may prove to be a bridge to a new chapter in the career of one of the most distinctive voices in Americana over the past several years.