New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Month: June, 2021

Min Xiao-Fen Releases a Darkly Surreal New Score to a Classic Chinese Silent Film

Min Xiao-Fen is one of the world’s great adventurers on the magical Chinese pipa lute. She first made a name for herself with her spiky, incisive arrangements of Thelonious Monk tunes, but she has done immense cross-pollination with the instrument in the years since. She’s also a brilliant singer and a composer whose eclecticism is as vast as you would expect considering her background. Her songs can be spare and intimate, in keeping with tradition, or explosively symphonic. Her latest album White Lotus – streaming at Spotify – is an original score for Wu Yonggang’s 1934 silent film The Goddess, a tragic melodrama about a Shanghai hooker who battles an evil pimp as she struggles to provide for her son’s education. The soundtrack is a duo collaboration with a similarly adventurous, cinematic artist, guitarist Rez Abbasi, who plays both acoustic and electric here

The album opens with a stark, hypnotically circling pipa theme and ambient guitar effects, dialogue from the film and fragments of the bandleader’s operatic vocals floating through the mix. There are moments where the textural contrast between Abbasi’s acoustic guitar and the pipa are subtle but distinct, others where it’s harder to distinguish between them since he sometimes uses a pipa-style tremolo-picking attack.

The galloping, syncopated, darkly windswept third track is mostly Abbasi multitracks. A handful of drifting passages for vocals and solo guitar are more spare and pensive.

A tableau for vocals and solo guitar channels utter desolation. There’s a bristling chase scene with occasional flickers of Greek rembetiko music. Echoes of bluegrass music, a tense nocturne, and a distantly sinister blend of ba-bump cabaret and the blues follow in turn. Interestingly, the moments where Asian pentatonics are front and center are few and far between, heightening the exotic effect. Toward the end, there are a couple of themes that come across as acoustic Pat Metheny with Chinese tinges. This is a gripping, dynamically shifting mix of styles that fits right into both artists’ constantly growing and paradigm-shifting bodies of work.

Ferociously Funny, Politically-Fueled Americana Rock From Esquela

In a crowded pack of Americana bands, Esquela distinguish themselves with their ferocious, often hilarious, fearlessly political lyrics and high-voltage guy/girl vocals. With New York under a draconian lockdown last summer and most studios officially shuttered, the group joined the legions of artists making albums over the web to record their latest one, A Sign From God, streaming at Bandcamp. Credit producer and multi-instrumentalist Eric “Roscoe” Ambel for piecing together individual tracks culled from very diverse sonic environments and somehow finding a way to make them sound like a cohesive group effort.

The opening number, Not in My Backyard sets the stage for the rest of the record. “Hydrofracking is a swear word, nuclear power is for the birds, guess we better burn some trees,” John “Chico” Finn and Becca Frame cynically observe over Ambel’s growling guitars and the steady four-on-the-floor drive from bassist Keith Christopher and drummer Mike Ricciardi.

Frame brings the lights down in Oradura, a grim account of the Nazi massacre of the French village of Oradour Sur Glane in 1944. With the smoldering intertwine of Brian Shafer and Matt Woodin’s guitars, it could be the Walkabouts: it’s the best song on the album.

With a lickety-split Shafer guitar solo and a ridiculously funny bridge, Rest of My Life offers two…um…individual perceptions of a one-night stand. Woodin and Shafer take turns with tantalizingly twangy solos in Give Ups, about a woman with distinctive taste in outerwear. Frame returns to the mic as the band get serious again, with 1861: in the current era of unprecedented divide-and-conquer, this Civil War parable really packs a wallop.

Ambel adds honkytonk-flavored lapsteel in Three Finger Joe, a cynical tale of casual redneck bigotry. Set to a snarling mix of Ambel guitar multitracks, First World Problems might the funniest song ever written about American exceptionalism. Together Finn and Frame chronicle the kind of devastating issues we have to cope with every day: our favorite teams finish last, the wifi acts up, we lose our phones, and country radio sucks. The joke at the end is way too good to spoil.

Rob Arthur guests on organ in What’s Your Problem, a snide account of white entitlement that brings to mind a big Dream Syndicate hit, right down to the opening Ambel guitar riff. Finn chronicles pioneer days in upstate New York over Ambel’s keening slide guitar in Two Stones. The band close the album with Wait For Me, Frame’s gorgeously chiming, haunting setting of a World War II poem by Russian soldier Konstantin Simonov. It’s been a slow year for rock records; count this as one of the best of the bunch so far.

Passepartout Duo Put Out an Invitingly Hypnotic New Album Made on Handcrafted Textile Instruments

Custom-built instruments are typically designed with more attention to exterior detail than their mass-produced counterparts. Once in awhile there’s an exception: too bad the Vox Teardrop, or the Kay guitars of the 1950s, didn’t have electronics to match the beauty of what’s on the outside. Keyboardist Nicoletta Favari and percussionist Christopher Salvito, who perform as Passepartout Duo, design and build their own instruments, and have created a fascinating pair of synthesizers which they call Oto.

They’re made from e-textiles and wool from Brogna sheep native to their home turf in Italy’s Lessinia region. The duo hand-felted the wool themselves. The point of the project was to create fully functional instruments that doubled as works of fabric art.

The two musicians put the new instruments through their paces on their new cassette Daylighting – streaming at Bandcamp – which also comes with hand-designed, soy-inked inserts. The duo call what they play here “slow music,” inspired by a trip to the Meili Snow Mountains in China and recorded in diverse locations throughout the world.

For what it’s worth, the seven tracks don’t have any distinctively Chinese characteristics, although there are passages which could definitely be called snowy. This music is psychedelic and often gamelanesque. Waves of bubbles and cheery, echoey bleeps percolate through the mix in the album’s first track, Plainness. There’s a delightfully keening, bagpipe-like patch in the second number, Indentations, intertwined amid dancing bell timbres and hand-held percussion.

There are playful percussion and squiggly accents over a warmly inviting calm in the third track, Matter. The album’s title cut is its most minimalist and hypnotic piece. Spare, mobile-like chimes mingle within woozily stacked electronic counterpoint in track five, Hue.

Speciation – a really, REALLY scary concept for 2021, huh? – is the most bell-like tableau here. The duo bring the cassette full circle with the final track, Quiescence. It’s often blissfully enjoyable chillout music.

Hard-Rocking Balkan Brass, Romany and Indian-Flavored Sounds From Black Masala

Black Masala‘s 2016 album I Love You Madly made the best albums of the year list here; at the time, this blog equated them to a Washington, DC counterpart to Slavic Soul Party. The Washington DC group’s most recent album, Trains and Moonlight Destinies – streaming at Bandcamp – rocks harder, with more of a roaring punk edge, through a typically diverse mix of Balkan, Indian and hard funk themes.

The album’s title track is closer to Gogol Bordello than the Slavic Soul guys, layers of guitars beneath the blazing brass of trumpeter Steven C and trombonist Kirsten Warfield, pushed along by Monty Montgomery’s oompahing Balkan ska sousaphone. The band’s axeman Duff Davis contributes a slashing doubletracked guitar solo.

Percussionist Kristen Long takes over the mic, adding a sultry edge to the dramatically pouncing Midnight Bhangra. Again, there’s as much guitar roar as biting brass here, like Red Baraat at their most rock-oriented. Above the Clouds could be a majestic early 70s Earth Wind & Fire hit…with a sousaphone.

Drummer Mike Ounallah hits a strutting minor-key Balkan reggae groove with Tell Me Again, Davis slashing through the mix when he isn’t doing droll chicken-scratch accents. The party anthem Empty Bottles shifts between brassy rocksteady and ska; then the band mash up New Orleans with Bo Diddley in Whatcha Gonna Do,

The kiss-off anthem Big Man is a mix of Balkan brass, hip-hop and punk rock, trumpet and trombone duking it out from opposite channels. The band wind up the album with the deliriously blasting Romany dancefloor stomp Chaje Shukarije.

An Intricately Constructed New Big Band Suite From Trumpeter Tim Hagans

Trumpeter Tim Hagans‘ ambitious new five-movement “concerto” with the NDR Bigband, A Conversation – streaming at Bandcamp – came out earlier this month. The suite owes as much to contemporary classical music as it does to jazz. As you would expect from a trumpeter, much of this is very bright and brassy. Challenging moments outnumber the more consonant interludes. Hagans’ sense of adventure and large-ensemble improvisation is matched by an embrace of traditional postbop. The operative question is the degree to which all this coheres, and whether listeners from those respective camps will be jarred away by all the stylistic puddle-jumping.

Hagans has engineered many of the successive themes in the first movement to collapse into themselves, to heighten the tension. After a staggering intro, there are echo effects, call-and-response from droll to tense, and suspenseful, increasingly dense rising waves. Pianist Vladyslav Sendecki’s pedalpoint and then simple, climbing riffs anchor blazing brass, a trope that will return many, many times here. In between, he takes a loose-limbed, allusively chromatic solo, the orchestra slowly rising in bursts behind him and then subsiding. An acidic moodiness settles in from there.

Massed swells give way to busy chatter and then a catchy, circling riff from the reeds as the second movement moves along. Baritone saxophonist Daniel Buch – who gets an amazing, crystalline, clarinet-like tone in the upper registers – hovers and then squirrels around. A slow, confident, brassy chorus of sorts recedes for bassist Ingmar Heller’s spare, dancing solo out.

The third movement begins with a brief, discordant duet between Sendecki and Heller that gains momentum with a brassy squall and rises to a blazing quasi-swing. Tenor saxophonist Peter Bolte’s smoky solo followed by trombonist Stefan Lotterman’s precise, dry humor are the high points. The bandleader’s wryly dancing solo at the end offers welcome amusement as well.

Hagans’ command of microtonal inflections in his solo intro to the fourth movement is impressive, to say the least, echoed by alto saxophonist Fiete Felsch as a more-of-less steady sway develops in movement four. Full stop for a shift into a shiny, intricately interwoven clave groove followed by a bit of cartoonish cacaphony, sardonically coalescing variations and a spacy Mario Doctor percussion solo.

The suite concludes with a contented sunset theme of sorts, Hagans using his mute, fading down and suddenly shifting to a funky, latin-tinged drive, a momentary breakdown and an eventual return to the overlays of the initial movement.

Irresistibly Fun Retro Cinematic Themes From Sven Wunder

Sven Wunder, like the soul/funk icon whose name he’s appropriated, is pretty much a one-man band. His specialty is balmy, cinematic instrumental themes with a psychedelic, late 60s/early 70s European feel. One good comparison is Manfred Hubler’s Vampyros Lesbos soundtrack in a particularly calm or pastoral moment. Among current bands, Tredici Bacci are another. This second Wunder’s playful, entertaining new album Natura Morta is streaming at Bandcamp.

Tinkly piano and fluttering flute breeze into the album’s opening track, En Plein Air before the strings go sweeping over a lithe, bouncy beat spiced with chiming keys. Is that an electric harpsichord? Is that real brass or the artificial kind?

More of those brassy patches alternate with brittle, trebly vintage clavinova, echoey Rhodes and sinuous hollowbody bass in Impasto. Prussian Blue begins with a cheery piano cascade and rustling flute but quickly becomes a strutting motorik surf rock theme. Surf popcorn? Popcorn surf?

The album’s title track is hardly the dirge the title implies: it comes across as a sort of orchestrated 70s soul take on Bob Marley’s Waiting in Vain. Wunder subtly edges the beat in Panorama into a 6/8 sway with 12-string acoustic guitar, wafting strings and winds, and vintage keyboard textures.

He goes back to vampy, lushly orchestrated early 70s soul with Alla Prima, those layers of 12-string guitar sparkling overhead. The sparkle continues in Umber, which has a somewhat more uneasy, pensive edge. Barocco, Ma Non Troppo is a funny little number: it’s a canon of sorts, but with shuffling syncopation and a funky Rhodes interlude

Wry low-register clavinova contrasts with the sweep of the strings in Memento Mori: the message seems to be, let’s party while we can. Pentimento is the album’s most hypnotic track, sheets of strings and winds shifting through the mix over growly, clustering bass. Wunder reprises the title track at the end with slip-key piano that’s just a hair out of tune. Somewhere there’s an arthouse movie director or two who need this guy.

Purist, Sharply Crafted Twin-Guitar Rock From Ratstar

The cover image of powerpop band Ratstar’s short album In the Kitchen – streaming at Bandcamp – displays an industrial-sized countertop that’s got to be twenty feet long. Next to the sink, there’s a blender overflowing with a suspicious grey substance that’s been blasted all over the floor. That’s truth in advertising. If searing layers of guitars and smart retro tunesmithing that brings to mind bands as diverse as the Stones, Squeeze, Cheap Trick and the British pub rock groups of the 70s are your thing, you should check them out.

The first track, Love You Again sets the stage for the rest of the record: Dave Hudson and Marty Collins’ tightly roaring guitars over a punchy, swaying beat that finally shifts toward reggae underneath a jagged solo. The bass uncurls to a slinky peak in the highest registers; these guys can really play.

The second cut, Stay a While starts out as a chugging, Stonesy tune, hits an unexpectedly lithe, funky groove from bassist Matt Collins and drummer Dean Mozian, then the band go back to It’s Only Rock n Roll territory. The band stay there for Unheavenly Dog, which is a little slower and brings to mind one of the great New York bands of the early zeros, the Sloe Guns.

The icing on the cake here, and the album’s punkest song, is No Encounter. Clustering drum breaks and high-tension lead lines rise to a spectacular exchange of solos between the guitars at the end, one of the best rock outros of the decade.

One of Brooklyn’s Best Jazz Acts Returns to Playing Live with a Vengeance

One of the first bands at the very front of the pack getting busy on the live circuit again is fronted by the guy who might be the best guitarist in Brooklyn. From the mid to late teens, Tom Csatari’s Uncivilized played a careening, highly improvisational but also wickedly tuneful blend of pastoral jazz and psychedelia, with frequent detours into the noir. Their distinctively drifting live album of Twin Peaks themes is an obscure treasure from the peak era of the Barbes scene. The group survived their bandleader’s brush with death (this was long before any so-called pandemic) and have emerged seemingly more energized than ever. Csatari didn’t let all the downtime during the past fifteen months’ lockdown go to waste: he wrote three albums worth of songs. He calls it the Placebo Trilogy, and it’s streaming at Bandcamp.

Their next show is June 26 at 8 PM at the new San Pedro Inn, 320 Van Brunt St. (corner of Pioneer) in Red Hook. You could take the B61 bus but if you’re up for getting some exercise, take the F to Carroll, get off at the front of the Brooklyn-bound train and walk it. Nobody at this blog has been to the venue yet but it gets high marks from those who have.

All three records are Csatari solo acoustic, often played through a tremolo effect. The first one, Placedo-Niche has a couple of numbers with a distantly Elliott Smith-tinged, hazily bucolic feel, the first steadier, the second more spare and starry. Csatari packs more jaunty flash and enigmatic strum into D’art in less than a minute thirty than most artists can in twice as much time: one suspects that this miniature, like everything else here, was conceived as a stepping-off point for soloing.

Morton Swing is an increasingly modernized take on a charmingly oldtimey melody. And Extra could be a great lost Grateful Dead theme – who cares if this singalong doesn’t have lyrics.

The second record, Placebo-ish begins with Fresh Scrabble, Csatari’s gritty, nebulous chords around a long, catchy, descending blues riff. As it unwinds, he mingles the same kind of finger-crunching chords into a southern soul-tinged pattern, explores a moody Synchronicity-era Police-style anthem, then sends a similarly brooding variation through a funhouse mirror. The most John Fahey-influenced number here is titled Sad-Joy, both emotions on the muted side.

The last album is Placebo-Transcendence. The gentle, summery ambience of the opening track, Valentino, suddenly grows frenetic. Sugar Baby vamps along, warm and hypnotic. The wryly titled Civilized is…well…exactly that: it sounds like Wilco. The funniest song title (Csatari is full of them) is Silicone Transcendence (Tryin’ to Transcend), the closest thing to Twin Peaks here.

There isn’t a jazz guitarist alive who gets as much mileage out of a chord-based approach than Csatari, and there aren’t many people writing tunes as hummable as these in any style of music. Yet they tease the ears at the same time. If you want to learn how to write using implied melody, there isn’t a better place to start than these records.

A Foundationally Haunting, Influential 70s Political Thriller Soundtrack Finally Available on Vinyl

Alan Pakula’s 1974 political assassination thriller The Parallax View is arguably more relevant today than when it was released at the height of the Watergate scandal. And while fewer film scores were released in those days as stand-alone records, it was not uncommon: some of the era’s bestselling albums, from 2001: A Space Odyssey, to Star Wars, were movie soundtracks. So it’s something of a shock to discover that Michael Small’s Parallax View score, one of the most iconic and influential of its kind, has never been released on vinyl until now. The whole album is not online, but bits and pieces of the score are floating around youtube.

Generally speaking, it’s amazing how much mileage Small gets from so few moving parts, especially in the tensest moments, presaging the minimalist meme of fifteen years later. Eerily twinkling accents peek out over ominous, sustained low strings as the title theme wafts in, a distantly brassy allusion to a Richard Strauss tune which had been resurrected very successfully just five years previously. That dichotomy continues throughout the brief morgue scene and dips to pitchblende cellos for the sheriff’s house interlude.

The momentary chase scene is classic: jagged Bernard Herrmann strings, but also icepick flutes, machinegunning drums and more Strauss from the lows of the piano. Spare violins accent a wary, slow stroll through the Testing Center. Eerie close harmonies and creepy tritones linger over the sparest, syncopated pulse, bells against massed basses in the nocturnal tableau that follows.

The famous brainwashing scene at the Parallax Corporation comes complete with dialogue: the way Small shifts from wistful folk-pop, to faux-pomp, to a contented Jimmy Webb-esque nocturne, is a clinic in mashup science. Lows balance keening, tense highs, sheets of strings and brass shifting slowly through the sonic picture as a suitcase bomb is delivered. Did Angelo Badalamenti nick one of the riffs from the bells for a famous Twin Peaks theme? Maybe!

Small gets classic again, with the most minute, insectile string flickers against looming lows as the death squad make their way in. Zarathustra hangs in the wings through a bit of chaos before the closing credits, where the quasi-pageantry reaches Shostakovian heights of sarcasm. No spoilers; see the movie or even better, get the vinyl.

Fun fact: in pulling together this release, the Cinema Paradiso crew were required to identify the uncredited voiceover actor in the brainwashing scene in order to secure permission from Paramount Pictures to include it. Considerable sleuthing finally revealed that it was Pakula himself, who had recorded a scratch track. The director, apparently satisfied with his own Hitchcockian cameo, ended up keeping it

Fighting Future Lockdowns with a Summer Solstice Celebration on Roosevelt Island

“There should be a thousand people here,” one spectator observed yesterday afternoon, trailing along the edge of a crowd of maybe a couple dozen folks making their way to the southern edge of Roosevelt Island. They’d come out for a walking tour led by healer and journalist Cat McGuire, who in a half hour under the trees in the park traced how Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “four freedoms” principle has been eroded in the recent past and over the years – beginning with the guy who created that shortlist.

No doubt, there should have been more people gathered here. But this is how paradigm shifts start, with a small group of people thinking outside the box. To paraphrase McGuire’s witheringly colorful observation, one person armed with the truth has more impact than sixty thousand who don’t. And this is happening all over the world.

McGuire has assembled a very sobering and enlightening presentation about the upcoming Cyber Polygon tabletop exercise scheduled for July 9, which you can watch here and download here. Considering what we know about false flag incidents coinciding with real-time military or police exercises – notably 9/11 and 7/7 – not to mention all the noise the World Economic Forum has been making about the threat of a global takedown of the power grid, this is a situation we need to keep our eye on.

Investigative journalist and singer Tessa Lena, whose poetically insightful news feed as well as her equally entertaining podcast Make Language Great Again have become two of the most reliable information sources over the past year, gave a short talk about the transhumanist component of the New Abnormal (a.k.a. Klaus Schwab’s Great Reset). Online avatars which supposedly keep all our memories alive in perpetuity? Internet-enabled nanobots injected under our skin to track our every movement and torture us to death if we say something critical about Facebook or Amazon? She doesn’t actually believe those nightmares will ever come true – as long as we make sure they don’t. According to the planned 2030 timetable, Ray Kurzweil’s bizarro “singularity” – where everyone except the world’s billionaires becomes a cyborg slave – is unfolding right on schedule.

Out behind the collapsing shell of the island’s long-vacant smallpox quarantine facility, psychologist Karin Burkhard reminded that over the years, an estimated fourteen thousand people were essentially abandoned and died inside the building. According to legend, the bodies were burned and the ashes scattered on the island: lost souls with lots unfinished business, right where everybody was standing, as Burkhard put it. She explained how even after mass vaccination campaigns had finally eradicated smallpox, those same vaccines continued to be available to members of the military for decades afterward…and that laboratory cultures of the virus were not destroyed until much more recently. One  hopes they were, anyway.

There was also music. Michael Jay used two huge gongs to build magical, immersive sheets of boomy lows and sepulchral high harmonics. He calls it a sound bath: this was more of a power shower of mystical calm. After more than half an hour of spine-tingling sonic refreshment, percussion trio Africa Forestdance picked up the pace  Led by Formoro Diabate, heir to a multi-generational Guinean balafon legacy, the group built rippling but similarly hypnotic volleys of sound.

And a pretty woman in a tan print dress, armed with a formidable walking stick, shared her entire container of watermelon with a thirsty (and very grateful) music reporter. What a sweet thing to do for someone on a sweltering day.