New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Month: December, 2020

Soprano Meets Bass Reinvent Sephardic Treasures with Passion and Elegance

The new Sephardic Treasures album by the Soprano Meets Bass project – streaming at Spotify – is a gorgeous and expansive take on a very old idea. Classical ensembles have been appropriating ancient Jewish themes for centuries; this album is more eclectic, drawing on tango, flamenco and jazz as well. In general, the music is sleeker than you would expect from a klezmer or tango band playing this material. For those of us who don’t speak Ladino, singer Ana María Ruimonte gives the material much more clarity than most operatically-trained vocalists typically deliver. And she maintains power and edge through many of the melodies’ challenging, rapidfire melismas and ornaments.

This is a long, rewarding album: fifteen songs. Most of them are sad; kings typically do not fare well in them. Minor keys are everywhere, along with the occasional slashing Middle Eastern mode. Bandleader/bassist Alan Lewine puts on a master class in terse, purposeful solos, notably a triumphantly churning facsimile of flamenco guitar playing in a Romany-flavored anthem toward the end of the record.

Some of the songs have a full rhythm section, with Shai Wetzer on drums; others feature lighter percussion by Víctor Monge. Pianist Chano Domínguez, trumpeter Duane Eubanks, flutist Hadar Noiber,  Spanish guitarist Julián Vaquero and violinist Alicia Svigals all punch in purposefully, often with echoes of flamenco or the Balkans, when the vocals drop out, or in response to Ruimonte’s lyrical phrasing. She sings in character, whethe plaintive, pensive – or simply unable to keep a straight face, in a goofy nursery rhyme about a cat. That’s the album’s lone moment of comic relief.

In a handful of songs, she reaches for the rafters with arioso power, especially in a dancing, subtly shifting North African-influenced ballad. There are quieter songs and laments here as well, including one with a spare, hypnotic, almost Indian atmosphere, an almost completely rubato tableau, and a welcome departure into flamenco jazz. What a feast for fans of flamenco, klezmer and classical music alike

An Enigmatic, Immersive Mini-Suite From Majel Connery

Singer Majel Connery‘s work, like pretty much every first-rate vocalist, spans a lot of styles. In her case, that runs from the baroque to the avant garde, as part of new music ensemble Oracle Hysterical and the duo Hae Voces. Her album Anything Chartreuse – streaming at Bandcamp – is a four-part suite told a woman’s perspective. in response to Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo.

The first part of August, the opening piece, recalls the catchy minimalism of recent Serena Jost: “Since we’ve washed ashore let’s shiver, sense the sensation of grasping flesh,” Connery intones, up to a big enveloping swell. Oracle Hysterical’s orchestration eventually recedes and the song comes full circle with an echoey, dissociative but triumphant conclusion.

This Much and More has a glitchy trip-hop groove and strangely oscillating, icily processed loops behind Connery’s pensive, calmly expressive voice. Pulsing with backward-masked textures, Rebeam Me could be Shara Nova in a particularly calm moment. Connery winds up this immersive and strange little partita with This Kind of Love, which distantly brings to mind the old Cindy Lauper hit Time After Time run through a pitch pedal for a chilly choir effect.

A Haunting, Hypnotic Elegy For People of Color Murdered by Police Since 2017

Cinematic postrock soul band Algiers originally released the anti-police violence broadside Cleveland on their 2017 album The Underside of Power. Frontman Franklin James Fisher’s impassioned vocals channeled determination to decimate what’s left of Jim Crow, whether the old or new kinds. In the wake of the protests of the past several months, they’ve released one of the most extended singles of all time, Cleveland 20/20 – streaming at Bandcamp – adding the names of 232 innocent people of color murdered by police since the song first came out. Fisher has also included the victims of the child murders that plagued Atlanta from 1979 to 1981. It is even more of a shock to discover that so many of these people were women.

This is sort of the Shoah single of 2020: haunting, hypnotic and relentless, over a swirling, gothic motorik background that decays to bleakly atmospheric free jazz. And at almost thirty-four minutes, it’s as grimly relevant as music gets in 2020.

There’s also a “vocal mix” that’s about half as long, with just the roll call of the murdered, gospel harmonies and handclaps.

A Savagely Spot-On Album of Holiday Protest Songs From the Pocket Gods

The Pocket Gods – British songwriter Mark Christopher Lee’s mind-bendingly prolific rock project – have a spot-on new album of protest songs, No Room at the (Holiday) Inn, out just in time for the last month of the year and streaming at Spotify. In the same vein as last year’s punk rock Xmas album, Lee has penned a collection of pro-freedom anthems that span a whole bunch of styles.

The best song on the album is the Beatlesque I Can’t Breathe, sending out a shout to the late George Floyd in a global context. “Like every battered wife strangled in lockdown…from oppressed singers to the homeless vying for patronage….it’s real for those with PTSD,” Lee reminds. Seriously: ask anyone who’s survived a building fire, a serious car accident, a near-drowning, or a violent assault that involved strangulation or asphyxiation. An awful lot of those people can’t be muzzled because muzzles are a PTSD trigger.

And what’s the most effective way to get a PTSD attack under control? Deep breathing. You do the math.

On the pissed-off, punk side, there’s the sarcastically galloping COVID Cavalry, part carnivalesque anthem, part phony Xmas carol, Lee speaking for a whole country full of people missing their significant others – or the kind of fun they used to have dancing in pubs, which they can’t have now, because it’s illegal.

“If you sing along to this catchy Christmas song in a pub you will be shot,” is basically all the lyrics to the sludgy, Jesus and Mary Chain-ish single COVID Christmas. I Saw Mommy Doing Track and Trace is a cynical, Ramonesy dis at Boris Johnson, “A big fat scrooge.”

The saddest song on the album is the title track, a gloomy psychedelic rock tune: “This used to be my town, now they’ve shut everything down,” Lee intones, speaking for urban dwellers around the world. Surplus Population is an ersatz funk number with a sample of Scrooge himself asserting that “If they would rather die they’d better do it and decrease the surplus population.”

On the optimistic side, there’s Celebrate, a pretty, jangly lo-fi folk-rock number. There are also a couple of careening, noisy, metalish horror themes and a horror surf tune titled Shitter Was Full.

Good to see the tireless Lee joining Jello Biafra, Van Morrison, Eric Clapton and Stone Roses frontman Ian Brown on the front lines of the pro-freedom movement.

Brooding, Vividly Lyrical Jazz Ballads From Kristiana Roemer

Kristiana Roemer’s pensive, philosophically-inspired compositions bridge the worlds of jazz and classical art-song. She sings bilingually, in clear, unacccented English and German. Her debut album House of Mirrors is streaming at Sunnyside Records.

In just about three terse minutes, she winds up the slow, swaying title track, an uneasy reconciliation with all the things that reflect our interior lives. Addison Frei’s sparse piano chords linger over the similarly minimalist groove of bassist Alex Claffy and drummer Adam Arruda, guitarist Gilad Hekselman taking the song out with a spare, enigmatic solo.

Frei starts in the stygian, stalking lows, shadowed by Arruda’s hardware in Beauty Is a Wound, which rises to a seductive, trip-hop tinged minimalism. Virgin Soil is a lingering breakup song, Claffy’s bass foreshadowing the determined tropical pulse Roemer leaps into, Dayna Stephens contributing a balmy tenor sax solo.

Deine Hande, a setting of a love poem by Felice Schragenheim, who was murdered by the Nazis in the Holocaust, has a persistent undercurrent of disquiet lowlit by Frei’s somberly modal piano. Dark Night of the Soul is the album’s most breathtaking and anthemic number, Frei’s intricate lines mingling with guitarist Ben Monders muted accents, up to a terse, suspenseful bustle.

In Manchmal, Roemer takes a cautionary nature-centric poem by Hermann Hesse and makes a slow, wary, resonant ballad out of it: Monder has never played as purposefully and spaciously as he does here. Arruda’s toms and percussionist Rogerio Boccato’s congas have the same kind of spaciousness in Lullaby for N, an allusively elegaic, Lynchian goodbye ballad.

Roemer remakes Stanley Turrentine’s Sugar as simmering, trickily rhythmic tropicalia and winds up the album with a nuanced, purist take of Mingus’ Duke Ellington’s Sound of Love. Roemer’s unselfconscious clarity on the mic, understatedly haunting lyricism and uncluttered arrangements make this one of the most captivating jazz debuts of the year.

Revisiting a Catchy, Fearless, Kick-Ass Rock Record by the Cleveland Steamers

The Cleveland Steamers’ Best Record Ever – streaming at Spotify– came out a couple of years ago. On one hand, it’s purist, catchy, dynamically shifting guitar rock with metal, garage and psychedelic influences. On the other, it’s incredibly original: nobody blends those styles like this crew. Some of these songs sound straight of 1980-  no doubt since many of the group were around back then – but the band really slay with the unexpected mashups.

The album’s darkest and most adventurous cut, Dream of Me is basically a slow, 6/8 doom metal theme infused with Cullen O’Connor’s creepy tremolo organ and an achingly melismatic Marianne Friend sax break. “Soon to share the cosmos with you,” frontwoman Meredith Rutledge-Borger soberly intones; then she makes a candy bar joke. Monsanto is much the same, from its menacing, flamencoish Nick Summa guitar intro, to drummer Emmett O’Connor’s stalking pulse afterward

Hung Up On You has a swaying garage rock beat and some slinky guitar work behind that keening, swirly organ, while Maple Leaf Girl is more of a straight-up, garagey powerpop number. The long trumpet intro to the vampy Last Love nicks a famous classical theme: “I found love is a good place to hide,” bassist/singer Cheese Borger confides.

The album’s funniest song is My Asshole Cousin, a punk tune: it’s a capsule history of Republican bigotry over the past hundred years. Never Saw You Again has a steady backbeat and a lingering guitar burn, a bitter reminiscence about a really bad choice.

There’s also the punchy powerpop tune, See You Tonight; Shut Up, a screaming, amusing punk song; and Something Bad, which sounds like Blue Oyster Cult taking a very successful stab at new wave.

Troubled, Intertwining Atmospherics in Trumpeter Nate Wooley’s Latest Seven Storey Mountain Installment

Trumpeter Nate Wooley’s ongoing Seven Storey Mountain project has a new sixth edition available and streaming at Bandcamp. It’s nothing like anything else in the series: haunting, often chaotic and even downright macabre in places. Although it was recorded prior to the lockdown, it uncannily seems to prefigure what the world has suffered this year.

The single 45-minute work begins with allusions to Renaissance polyphony fueled by the slightly off-key violins of C. Spencer Yeh and Samara Lubelski. Met by droning washes of harmonies from Susan Alcorn’s pedal steel, the atmosphere grows more ominous, Emily Manzo’s spare piano building funereal ambience.

Isabelle O’Connor’s similarly minimalist Rhodes piano enters the picture and suddenly a disorientingly syncopated clockwork interweave appears, with the flutters from drummers Chris Corsano, Ryan Sawyer and Ben Hall. From there it grows even loopier, circular riffs and nebulous atmospherics filtering through the mix in the vein of a contemporary, electronically-enhanced horror film score. It’s here that Wooley’s agitated, echoey lines first appear through the sonic thicket.

Sirening violins, broodingly steady Rhodes chords and a kaleidoscope of flickering noise ensue. It’s not clear where or even whether guitarists Ava Mendoza or Julien Desprez join in, or whether those scrapes which could be guitar strings are coming from the percussion section, until finally an icy, squalling patch played through an analog chorus pedal. It’s probably Mendoza but maybe not.

Drums and guitars and who knows what else reach a terrorized Brandon Seabrook-like stampede as the band hit fever pitch. The group bring it full circle with what seems to be a twisted parody of an organ prelude and a baroque chorale: the final mantra is “You can’t scare me.” This is by far the darkest, most psychedelic, and ultimately most assaultive segment in Wooley’s series yet, perhaps an inevitability considering the state of the world in 2020.

A Quietly Searing, Politically-Fueled New Album From Guitarist Ty Citerman and Bop Kabbalah

Guitarist Ty Citerman’s Bop Kabbalah is best known for rocking out centuries-old Jewish themes. His latest release under the Bop Kabbalah monicker, When You Speak of Times to Come – streaming at Bandcamp – is just as radical, and radically different. As so many artists have done during the lockdown, this is far more intimate, a trio record with singers Sara Serpa and Judith Berkson.

This one’s all about contrasts. Citerman shifts between stark, acidic minimalism, cold sparks of noise and the minor-key growl he’s best known for as the two women add lushness and haunting close harmonies. This album often sounds like it’s made by a much larger ensemble. Serpa and Berkson often switch between channels in the mix: the former is more misty yet also more crystalline, while Berkson’s voice is more edgy and forceful. Together they cover all the bases.

They also deliver spoken word in both English and Yiddish in a handful of righteously revolutionary interludes between songs, along with the album’s rather exasperated opening prayer. The brief first song has simple, somber counterpoint between the two women and spiky harmonics from Citerman.

The second spoken-word interlude instructs us to “Demand bread from tsars and dukes, demand human rights, demand everything we’ve created.” In year of the lockdown, that has never been more of an imperative! The women’s uneasy close harmonies and blippy quasi-operatics float and dance as Citerman builds from icepick incisions to a snarl in Geyt Brider Geyt.

“With one hand you gave us the Constitution, with the other you took it back…you thought you could divert the revolution, that was your dirty politics. Down with you, you executioner, you muderer, get off the throne, no one believes in you anymore, only in the red flag,” the trio warn as the album’s fifth cut slowly builds up steam. Citerman winds down his multitracks, hits his distortion pedal and cuts loose with a roar.

Berkson sings the moody, steady Ver Tut Stroyen Movern Palatsn – an exploration of who does all the heavy lifting, and who gets the benefit of all that lifting – against Serpa’s signature vocalese, and Citerman’s burning dynamic shifts.

They wind down the hypnotic, pulsing, intertwining Es Rirt Zikh with an expansive, exploratory solo. The three build considerably more haunting variations on an old nigun in the first part of the suite Future Generations – is that Berkson or Serpa on piano?

The women’s harmonies are especially plaintive in the second part, At Night, a furtively slashing revolutionary tableau: Gordon Grdina’s darkest work comes to mind here. The album’s grittiest and most unhinged interlude is part three, Hidden Rage. The chillingly chromatic concluding movement, with its brooding tradeoffs between piano and guitar, serves as the title track. If there ever was an album for the end of the year on the brink of a holocaust delivered via lethal injection, this is it.

Vivid, Poignant Rarities and Popular Favorites From Violist Dana Zemtsov and Pianist Anna Fedorova

Violist Dana Zemtsov and pianist Anna Fedorova each grew up as first-generation immigrants in France, so their album Silhouettes – streaming at Spotify – reflects a lot of personal influences and experiences. Their shared affinity for the material here, interpolating short pieces by Debussy among an eclectic mix of more expansive duo works, translates viscerally to the listener.

They risk making the rest of the record anticlimactic with their opening number, Rebecca Clarke’s Viola Sonata. In 1919, the pioneering orchestral violist and composer submitted it to a composition contest, pseudonymously, under a man’s name. She finished second (to a similarly brilliant piece by Ernest Bloch) and earned a lot of press when her identity was revealed. It would become her most successful work in a vastly underrated career.

The duo launch into it with an opulent fierceness that rises and falls, with echoes of of early Bartok and Ravel: their spacious, comfortably starry approach to the first movement’s conclusion is a quietly mighty payoff. They bring a conspiratorial, marionettesque energy to the second movement. Zemtsov’s poignant resonance over Fedorova’s starry glimmer and whisper is just as impactful in the final one.

Dutch composer Arne Werkman’s 2007 Suite for viola and piano has some jaunty boogie-woogie cached in the acidically dancing lines of the opening movement, an occasionally creepy, carnivalesque sensibliity that the duo seize on in the second, and allusions to a moody bolero in the third. They bring the phantasmagoria to its logical conclusion in the Paganini-inspired coda.

Darius Milhaud’s Viola Sonata No. 1 begins with an uneasy stroll and cleverly intertwined counterpoint, Zemtsov and Fedorova reveling in the coy leaps and bounds of the second. The wistfully Romantic waltz of a third movement comes as a surprise, leaving the two musicians to tie things up with a ragtime-inflected wink and a grin in the finale.

A pensive ballad without words contrasts with bracing, Romany-inflected flair and nocturnal suspense throughout the swells and ebbs of George Enescu’s Concert Piece for Viola and Piano. The Debussy pieces begin with La plus que lente, a steady, rather tongue-in-cheek, cynically brooding take on early 20th century slow waltz cliches. The version of Clair de Lune here is rather muted and on the slow side: this nightscape has plenty of clouds. The final piece is the brief, lyrical student work Beau Soir.

Good Things Come in Twos on Ingrid Laubrock’s Haunting, Massive New Double Album

Saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock’s epic new double album Dreamt Twice, Twice Dreamt – streaming at Bandcamp – has a novel concept: a single set of compositions performed by a jazz quartet plus chamber orchestra, then a completely different jazz quintet. The difference between the large and small-ensemble versions is stunning, to the point where one version is unrecognizable compared to the other.

Laubrock has worked with large improvising ensembles before, but this is her most ambitious and darkest project to date. There’s more going on here than anyone could possibly capsulize in a digestible album review: dive in for yourself and experience this strange and wonderful creation. Although it was recorded before the lockdown, the occasional shriek through the mist foreshadows the horror that would be the year 2020.

The first disc features the bandleader on tenor and soprano sax, joined by Cory Smythe on piano and quartertone electric piano, Robert Landfermann on bass and Tom Rainey on drums, along with the EOS Chamber Orchestra conducted by Susanne Blumenthal. They open with the title track, Laubrock’s upbeat, energetic solo seemingly wrenching the group along with her. Smythe quickly switches to eerie microtonal accents as Laubrock grows more casual, the strings looming back in with a similarly magical microtonality. Slides, dopplers and various echo effects, growly processed bass over shimmery ambience, and a plaintive bit of a viola theme all factor into the album’s first ten minutes. That sets the stage for the rest of the record.

Snorkel Cows has a bubbling, circling drive, rippling microtonal piano, strings like an agitated flock of birds, massed glissandos, echoey ambience and striking, resonant high/low contrasts plus a long, pensive interlude from Laubrock over disquieting, pulsing atmospherics. As strange as the tonalities are, the music isn’t far from what you might hear from an ambitiously tuneful current-day big band like Chuck Owen and the Jazz Surge.

The album’s most symphonic number is Drilling, the first version clocking in at almost nineteen minutes of troubled haze punctuated by belltones, foghorns over a sad harbor, Hitchcockian moment of panic, trolls under a bridge and a triumphantly weird crescendo.

Never Liked That Guy has a playful light/dark dichotomy early on over shivery massed orchestration, rivulets of microtonal piano desencending and a relentlessly ominous backdrop for a surprisingly animated Laubrock soprano sax solo. The final cut, Down the Mountain, Down the Mountain is a Dvorkian orchestral cautionary tale  with looming low brass and keening strings taking the place of the indians out on the prairie, disintegrating to what seems to be an inevitable battle .

The quintet versions of the material are more pensive, as can be expected. Laubrock’s energy in the quintet version of Snorkel Cows commands centerstage, whether blippy or calm over the ensemble of Smythe, electric harpist Zeena Parkins, accordionist Adam Matlock and Momenta Quartet violinist Josh Modney. This time the drilling in the wall keeps up, but nobody seems to be paying any mind.

Speaking of Drilling, the quintet version is a thicket of stabbing burnt-plastic electronic interruptions finally redeemed by Matlock’s pulsing chords and a plaintive Laubrock solo over raindrop-and-mist sonics. Smythe’s jackhammering attack and Laubrock’s breathlessly jumping soprano sax substitutes for the orchestra in the take of I Never Liked That Guy

Modney’s severe, slashing microtonal riffs are matched by Laubrock’s masterful in-between harmonies and Matlock’s resolute resonance in Down the Mountain, Down the Mountain.

There’s also an electronic component throughout the album, typically in the background and mostly confined to tweaking textures, adding echoes and loops.