New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Broodingly Individualistic, Haunting Russian Folk Noir From Julia Vorontsova

Julia Vorontsova plays Russian folk noir. The sound of her voice and her lute are much the same, a muted, disconsolate presence. One suspects that her lead guitarist, Zeke Zema, would rather be playing metal, but on her 2016 album Over – streaming at Spotify – his biting, distorted lines are usually back in the mix. Of all the albums to have made it to the hard drive here over the past few years, this is one of the most haunting. Vorontsova’s lyrics – in Russian and Romanes – reflect a lot of irony, heartbreak and dissolution.

The instrumentation is spare but intricately layered, with acoustic and electric guitars and Marie-Sophie Leturq,’s resonant cello over a low-key rhythm section of Ian Walker on bass and Aaron Sterling  on drums. The quietly brooding opening track, St. Pete is just variations on an enigmatic lute riff, the drums like furtive footfalls in the snow.

The second cut, Malenitsa, is a briskly swaying minor-key folk tune lowlit with ghostly, shimmery guitar lines. Oubliette, a dark Russian cabaret number set to a rock backbeat, contains two of the album’s most haphazardly incisive guitar solos. Gently vibrato-tinged cello floats beneath Vorontsova’s delicate fingerpickng in Gretchen, a melancholy, Goethe-inspired waltz.

The album’s longest song is Gypsy, a sotto-voce, somewhat hypnotic duet. After that, Vorontsova goes back to mashing up Russian cabaret with steady, strolling, uneasy Laurel Canyon psychedelia in Alps, capped off by a moody slide guitar solo. Shivery cello and acidically hovering electric guitar mingle with Vorontsova’s nimble fingerpicking in Knight Violin.

She reverts to quiet, nebulous, overcast sonics for Nameless and its unexpectedly tricky rhythms. The album’s title track is a slow, conspiratorial, Romany jazz-tinged waltz with an unexpected guitar duel midway through.

The first of two tracks titled Prayer, an elegantly swaying ballad in 6/8 time could be Marissa Nadler in Russian – at least until the strut at the end with all the frenetically bluesy guitar. With its steady, syncopated drive and grimly gorgeous layers of guitar, Pick is the album’s mighty, understated peak. Likewise, the even quieter Prayer 2 has a macabre undercurrent. Vorontsova closes the record with Air, a spare, skeletally dancing number with bells and lots of ringing guitar harmonics. Even if you don’t speak Russian, this is a rapturously good listen if you gravitate toward music reflecting the kind of darkness that has surrounded us since March 16 of last year

Blythe Gaissert Tackles the Concept of Home in an Era of Refugees and Homelessness

What’s become more and more apparent as the lockdowers’ schemes continue to unravel is that a significant portion of the global population managed to keep the lockdown at bay. Yes, entire segments of the economy, most tragically the performing arts, were largely destroyed. But freedom proved too strong to die. We found places to shop and eat where nobody was traced or tracked or expected to be muzzled. When our favorite bars and restaurants were padlocked, we started speakeasies and threw potlucks. A lot of us entertained audiences in our newfound clandestine spaces. And some of us even made albums. One particularly noteworthy and fiercely relevant new release is mezzo-soprano Blythe Gaissert‘s album Home, streaming at Bandcamp.

Its central theme relates powerfully to the global refugee crisis, although it’s taken on frightening new levels of meaning since the lockdown. Joined by a dynamic, impassioned chamber ensemble, Gaissert has engaged an eclectic cast of composers and lyricists who range beyond the indie classical demimonde with which she is most closely associated.

She opens the album with David T. Little and Royce Vavrek’s bracing Archaeology. Over a somber, steadily shifting backdrop from violinists Miho Saegusa and Katie Hyun, violist Jessica Meyer, cellist Andrew Yee and bassist Louis Levitt, Gaissert reaches for the rafters in this allusively ominous tableau: houses keep more secrets than anyone knows.

Gaissert sings in Chinese in Songs From Exile, a leaping yet pulsingly elegant diptych by Rene Orth utilizing an ancient Li Qing Zhao text, an expat’s view of absence and longing. The acidic glissandos from the strings in the second part are particularly disquieting.

Gaissert shifts to French for Nous Deux, Martin Hennessy‘s starkly string-fueled setting of a Paul Eluard text: “We ourselves are the evidence that love is at home with us,” is the crux of it. Laura Kaminsky and Kimberly Reed‘s Carne Barata (Chopped Meat) witheringly quotes immigrant Linda Morales’ cynical account of undocumented employees in the meatpacking industry. Colleen Bernstein’s vibraphone lingers beneath the opacity of the string section and Gaissert’s impassioned duet with baritone Michael Kelly.

She soars over Bradley Moore’s colorfully crescendoing piano in John Glover and Kelley Rourke‘s Home Is Where I Take My Shoes Off. a welcome moment of comic relief. The music calms with Kamala Sankaram‘s gorgeously ambered, wistfully imagistic Ramonanewyorkamsterdam.

The lush sway of Jerry Hammer, by Ricky Ian Gordon, belies the song’s creepy childhood reminiscence of the death of an outcast. Gaissert reaches to the depths of her register in the final composition, Bungalow, a diptych by Mikael Karlsson and Rob Stephenson. Its alternately blustery and seemingly Indian-influenced, nebulously swirling textures build levels of suspense that the lyrics never match. Otherwise, throughout this album, Gaissert has really nailed the angst of an era.