New York Music Daily

Love's the Only Engine of Survival

Month: August, 2021

The Boston Symphony Orchestra Release a Rivetingly Detailed, Harrowing Shostakovich Album

It might be unfair to artists playing original material to say that Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony Orchestra‘s new live recording of three Shostakovich symphonies and an immortal smaller-scale theme – streaming at Spotify – is the frontrunner for best album of the year. Even so, the conductor and orchestra go unusually deep into these profoundly troubled, relevant works: they couldn’t have chosen a more appropriate era to be releasing their Shostakovich symphonic cycle. It’s riveting and timely music, subtly and sensitively performed. Nelsons and the ensemble work a vast dynamic range from a whisper to short of a scream. Unorthodox as this program is, it makes sense in context, the phantasmagoria of the composer’s ambitious first symphony coming into full, savage bloom in two late symphonies and also the Rudolf Barshai string orchestra arrangement of Shostakovich’s harrowing, antifascist String Quartet No. 8.

Let’s start with that piece, the last one on the album, since it’s the most apropos to our time. Shostakovich wrote the string quartet thinking it could be his final work since Krushchev was strong-arming him to join the Communist Party, or else. It’s as timely now as it was when the composer frantically wove his initials into it, in musical notation, over and over again. In 1960, those creepy chromatics meant a knock on the door from the KGB, its drifting desolation a requiem for the victims of Stalin’s regime, its chase scenes being the gestapo coming for a composer who’d finally crossed too far over the line. This remarkably subdued, solemn, utterly chilling interpretation makes an apt soundtrack for the health department marching into an elementary school, lethal needles in hand. Or a New York City hospital ward filled with comatose Medicare patients being sedated to death in order to create the illusion of a pandemic. Or the Australian police ruthlessly tracking some poor guy who’d escaped from solitary confinement after testing positive for a bioweapon-induced illness that went extinct months ago.

Symphony No. 1, which opens the recording, has withstood the test of time well and gets a triumphantly carnivalesque treatment here. There’s a balletesque lilt to the first movement… and that bassoon strut makes an eerie predecessor for a much more macabre theme in Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Symphony No. 6.

The lithe, cynical bustle of movement two is irresistible, the orchestra’s vaunted strings adding a gossamer, deep-space twinkle and not the slightest hint of the whirlwind coda that will soon follow. Nelsons’attention to the pulsing echo effects in the forebodingly crescendoing third movement is a characteristically insightful touch, as are the plaintive soloists, foreshadowing the horror-stricken calm of the composer’s Symphonies No. 10 and 11. He holds back the fireworks in the fourth movement until the hordes are at the great gate of Kiev, with the xylophone-like piano a stunning contrast. What a picturesque exhibition.

Shostakovich liked to recycle some of his most twisted themes, and he does that a lot in his final Symphony, No. 15, from 1971. It’s arguably his most death-obsessed work. The flutey intro, followed by an even more cynical bassoon melody and faux pageantry that quotes liberally from the William Tell Overture could be read as death dancing outside the window, whether that’s the gestapo or just the ravages of time – although it’s hard to imagine this composer failing to add his usual sociopolitical context. When the brass come stomping in, the orchestra’s pinpoint precision leaves no doubt what’s going on. In case you wonder what that whiplash percussive effect is, it’s a real whip.

Seamlessly switching gears, Nelsons holds the lingering, vast stillness of the second movement in check: somber passages from solo cello, winds and horn are muted in the face of seemingly inevitable doom, a throwback to Symphony No. 11. The brief third movement is all portents and marionettish evil, underscored by the orchestra’s sheer matter-of-factness. In the final movement, Nelsons puts the spotlight on the parade of wistful figures flickering as the curtain behind draws closer. So the point where someone – or a whole society – meets a sudden, tragic end midway through really packs a punch. At the end, the gulag and the executioner – or just a haunted witness to a hideous period in Russian history – dissolve into shadow puppets.

Symphony No, 14, from 1969, is a lavish, death-obsessed song cycle of sorts much in the same vein as the Babi Yar Symphony, No. 13. Soprano Kristine Opolais and bass Alexander Tsymbalyuk take turns in alternately brooding and acidically surreal interpretations of poetry by Garcia Lorca, Apollinaire and Wilhelm Kuchelbecker – hardly doctrinaire Soviet-approved artists.

The utter solemnity of Garcia Lorca’s De Profundis cedes to the grand guignol ballet of his macabre Malaguena. The duet of Apollinaire’s Lorelei is every bit a depiction of a twisted, beckoning Aryan witch as the poet could have imagined.

Similarly, the contrast between Opolais’ angst and the still backdrop in his portrait of a suicide’s grave is downright chilling, as is the carnivalesque antiwar message in On Watch. Those qualities pervade the rest of the symphony, through a whisperingly grim prison-cell tableau, martial belligerence and incessant grim imagery: exactly what the entire world has been forced to grapple with since the spring of 2020.

Except that these are only cautionary tales.

A Wild Cuban Salsa Dance Party at Drom

Friday night at Drom, percussionist Pedrito Martinez and his band put on a feral, thunderous dance party. This wasn’t tame, watered-down covers of famous salsa jams from the 70s: Martinez plays originals, set to a constantly shifting, slinky groove. If the club wasn’t sold out, it was close to capacity, and from the second the smoke machine kicked in and the band hit the stage, people were dancing in their seats.

That didn’t last. By the end, everybody was on their feet. There was one particular couple who spent the entirety of the show twirling in between the tables, and they were just as interesting to watch as the band were, completely locked into the kaleidoscope of rhythms. When the pretty brunette saw Martinez move from behind his massive kit to show off his own dance moves at the front of the stage, she leapt up onstage and joined him. By the end of the show, the duo looked as if they’d changed shirts. You would have too if you’d given yourself that kind of workout.

In this band, everybody is part of the percussion section, even the horns. Martinez had six congas, a snare, hi-hat, two cymbals slung overhead, and would occasionally drive home a turnaround with a mighty thump on the cajon he was sitting on. He introduced his timbalero as “the greatest percussionist of his generation,” and nobody in the crowd argued with that, especially when the two dueled and built supersonic volleys of beats, to a tropical hailstorm.

The group’s roughly ninety-minute set was like one long song, but with sometimes subtle, sometimes spectacular rhythmic shifts. Even more impressive than the sheer physicality and grace of the performance was how fresh it sounded. Martinez has been doing this for a long time, but the chemistry in this band is such that everybody knows how to push everybody else’s buttons and drive the jousting to new levels of intensity.

Martinez’s forthcoming album is titled Autentico, and his pianist is in charge of the arrangements, so it was no surprise to see what a polyrhythmic approach he took to his cascades and stabbing chords. Likewise, the group’s bassist would hammer on the strings with the edge of his fist rather than merely fingerpicking. The man in the sunburst shirt who started out on guiro doubled on both trombone and trumpet, often playing all three instruments in the same song. And it was fun to watch Martinez take a turn on bass late in the set: he knows what he’s doing! Likewise, the timbalero took over on congas when Martinez would get up to dance with a pretty girl.

Falkner Evans’ Distantly Haunting New Album Underscores How Love Is Stronger Than Death

Pianist Falkner Evans’ wife Linda killed herself in May of 2020, consequence of the lockdown. A professor whose specialty was Latin American literature, her favorite author was Gabriel Garcia Marquez. She was bright, introspective, well read and a talented visual artist. Evans’ response to this devastating and totally preventable loss is his first-ever solo album, Invisible Words, which isn’t online yet. It’s both a loving portrait and a reflection on unspeakable grief. On the whole, the album is more pensive than anguished, and surprisingly dynamic considering the circumstances. A handful of themes recur, sonata-like. Space plays as much a role here as melody.: Much of this is Mahmoud Darwish’s concept of the presence of absence, incarnated in these songs without words.

Evans opens with the title track, beginning with a tentative, minimalist fondness that grows to a sparkle and then a serious, carefully considered insistence. Clearly, Linda had a joie de vivre to match any despondency.

You’re Next, Ladybug is a warmly expectant ballad, Evans pacing himself slowly with more than a hint of Errol Garner lightheartedness through a series of gentle neoromantic cascades that occasionally drift toward ragtime or stride. Likewise, there’s plenty of space in Brightest Light, a wistfully anthemic tune which quickly descends toward a portrait of emotional depletion.

Breathing Altered Air is a lockdown parable, Evans reaching for jaunty glimpses of hope amid the somber, austere chords. Moving toward a steady stroll, he livens the heavy atmosphere with variations on a series of wry soul/blues riffs, up to an unexpected ending that packs a crushing wallop.

Made Visible is part wounded Chopin prelude, part sagely reflective Horace Silver wee hours refrain. Like so many of the tracks here, there’s a steady resilience, an autosuggestive quality, a mantra to just keep going. .

The big epic here is Lucia’s Happy Heart, referencing Linda’s’ Italophile alter ego. An older song, it’s actually one of the album’s more somber numbers: it’s sort of an expansive study for what would become Altered Air.

The Hope Card is the album’s most spacious and perhaps ironically most persistently brooding, ominously chromatic track. Evans closes the record with the terse ballad Invisible Words for Linda, in a sense bringing the album full circle.

Even more tragically, Evans’ wife’s suicide is one of thousands since the lockdown – and the pandemic of deaths of despair is getting worse. More people under thirty were driven to suicide in the UK by the lockdown than died of Covid in the entire world. The World Economic Forum and their puppets at the WHO and in government have blood on their hands.

At this point in history, whistleblowers and great revelations are springing out everywhere: it is only a matter of time before every population in the world gets wise to the lockdowners’ schemes and puts an end to them. We owe their victims no less.

Delicate, Warmly Enveloping Music For Harp and Guitar From Mirabai Ceiba

Mirabai Ceiba play delicate, warmly thoughtful, often hypnotic pastoral themes on harp and guitar. Sometimes harpist Angelika Baumbach colors the music with simple piano phrases, intertwining with Markus Sieber’s meticulously fingerpicked acoustic guitar, along with occasional resonant electric textures. Their new album The Quiet Hour – streaming at Bandcamp – has an understatedly persistent, optimistic, meditative quality. As you might expect, this duo likes long songs.

The first track is titled Ma. Baumbach sings the gentle mantra “My heart” over and over as the loopy web of acoustic guitar and harp grows increasingly intricate behind her.

The pattern continues in She (an original, not the 60s pop hit), a stately series of syncopated triplet figures underpinning Baumbach’s low-key meditation on connecting with the archetypal female.

Harp Lullaby is exactly that – it reminds of Kurt Leege‘s starry jazz lullabies

Baumbach duets with guest Marketa Irglova in the hushed, bittersweet Britfolk-flavored Take on a Thousand Forms. Que Quede Escrito features a stark string section and minimalist piano: Baumbach sings this tender spiritual in her native Spanish.

The album’s big meditative loopmusic epic is Ra Ma. The duo close the record with The Time Given to Us, its most bucolic and folk-tinged but also most anthemic number. If you’re feeling stressed – and who isn’t right now? – give this a spin.

Fun fact: the duo’s bandname is a shout out to both pioneering medieval Indian feminist and composer Mira Bai, and also the Ceiba tree, sacred to Mayan mythology.

Americana Songwriter James McMurtry’s New Album: One of the Best of 2021

James McMurtry‘s long-awaited new album The Horses and the Hounds – streaming at Bandcamp – was worth the wait. At this point in his career, the Texas Americana songwriter would be a first-ballot hall-of-famer even if he never put out another record. He tells an evocative story in a few words, sings in an understated, knowing drawl and always has a great band behind him. His best-known protest song, We Can’t Make It Here, spoke for a generation of Americans disenfranchised and thrown into poverty by Clintonista globalization and the millions of jobs that vanished offshore as a result.

While there is one characteristically searing political broadside on the new record, most of it is haunted by death and the ravages of time. McMurtry’s hardscrabble characters and populist themes are as memorable as ever. The band behind him are dynamic and inspired: the core crew is David Grissom on guitars, Bukka Allen on organ, Sean Hurley on bass and Daren Hess on drums.

The layers of guitars simmer but never quite explode on the opening number, Canola Fields, an understatedly desperate tale of a doomed romance dating back to the 70s and an old Lincoln Continental with suicide doors:

We met up in Brooklyn before it went hipster
You carried your keys in your fist
In a way back corner of a cross town bus
We were hiding out under my hat
Cashing in on a thirty year crush
You can’t be young and do that

McMurtry paints a defiant portrait of an aging Bukowskiesque character in If It Don’t Bleed:

You stay in the game when you’re too broke to fail, that’s a fact
Talking to the wallpaper, sleeping in the hall
Bones get brittle so you better not fall

With the disastrous Biden pullout from Afghanistan reaching fullscale pandemonium, the album’s most savagely cynical number, Operation Never Mind has more relevance than McMurtry probably ever imagined:

We won’t let the cameras near the fighting
That way we won’t have another Vietnam…
No one knows, ‘cause no one sees
No one cares, ‘cause no one knows
No one knows, ‘cause no one sees it on TV

What else can you expect where the intelligence is being supplied not by American soldiers but by mercenaries working for Kellogg, Brown and Root?

McMurtry draws a wintry portrait of a woman trucker holding on by her fingernails in Jackie, a slow, ballad lowlit by Cameron Stone’s cello. The surprise ending is less of one when you realize how much foreshadowing McMurtry has been throwing at you.

Decent Man is a Great Plains murder ballad, a chilling cautionary tale about misdirected anger. Vaquero, a southwestern gothic-tinged waltz dedicated to McMurtry’s late friend Bill Witliff, offers a troubling glimpse of an undocumented farm worker’s life after the harvest – in all senses of the phrase.

The title track is the loudest one on the album, a roaring, bluesy, vengeful current-day desperado anthem with a sizzling Grissom solo out. The most cynically funny and musically adventurous song is Ft. Walton Wake-Up Call, a talking blues worthy of John Prine, unfolding on the way back from the vacation from hell. “”How the hell they gonna build a wall without the Mexicans anyway?” McMurtry’s commonsensical narrator wants to know.

He picks up the pace again with What’s the Matter, a colorful, Stonesy shuffle recounting the innumerable hassles of life as a touring musician who’s also a parent (obviously written before the lockdown because it doesn’t deal with having to cancel concerts because of medical “passport” restrictions).

McMurtry closes the record with Blackberry Winter, a cruelly detailed breakup ballad for the Purdue Pharms era. A great bunch of stories, smartly and purposefully played, and a lock for one of the best album of 2021.

A Long-Awaited, Anthemic, Intriguingly Textured New Album From the Joy Formidable

The Joy Formidable burst onto the European festival scene in the early zeros as a sort of dreampop version of the Pretenders. Blending a dense swirl into their simple, emphatic anthems, the Welsh power trio have never wavered from a formula that works. Their new album Into the Blue is streaming at Spotify. It’s as solid a soundtrack for a brisk drive, or a trip to the gym (assuming you live in a part of the world where gyms are accessible without restrictions) as you could possibly want.

The album’s title track is built around frontwoman Ritzy Bryan’s staggered, nebulously suspenseful 6/8 guitar riff, which explodes in layers of distortion on the chorus: it’s an optimistic, catchy opener. She picks up the energy with her swipes up and down the fretboard over the punchy drive of bassist Rhydian Dafydd and drummer Matthew James Thomas on the second cut, Cherries, down to a momentary piano break.

With the repeaterbox fluttering in the background and Bryan’s anxious, breathy vocals, track three, Sevier has an distant U2 feel. Watery chorus-box textures mingle with whiplash distortion over tricky syncopation in Interval, which at five and a half minutes is a whole lot more than that.

The band build Farrago around a simple descending riff, adding layes of noise and punches from the guitar that look back to the sledgehammer minimalism of Clinic. Bryan whispers the lyrics as Gotta Feed My Dog rises from new wave-flavored suspense, to a foggy insistence, and eventually a more fluid, psychedelic atmosphere.

Dafydd takes over the mic over Bryan’s fingerpicked, flamenco-flavored flourishes as Somewhere New gathers steam; it seems to be a childhood reminiscence. The playfully blippy, punchy 80s textures that kick off Bring It to the Front are a red herring: it’s the darkest and most memorable track here. Likewise, the defiance in Bryan’s voice in Back to Nothing, which could be the Cure through a very thick glass, brightly.

Thomas’ leadfoot 2/4 stomp propels Only Once, which also echoes the Cure but less opaquely: “Never coming home, never coming back” is the mantra. The album’s final cut is Left Too Soon, rising from a hypnotic, rainy-day acoustic waltz to a roaring, elegaic, increasingly elegaic blaze. This might be the band’s best album to date, not bad for an act who’ve been at it for practically two decades.

Noveller Releases a Strikingly Concise, Darkly Cinematic New Instrumental Album

Guitarist Sarah Lipstate, who records as Noveller, has made a name for herself with towering, epic, symphonic instrumental themes. Her music is vivid and cinematic to the core. Her latest release, – streaming at Bandcamp -is titled Aphantasia, a term for the inability to imagine or create. That seems to be sarcastic to the extreme, because, as usual, the tracks here are mini-movies for the ears. What’s new is that they’re vignettes, often flashing by in less than a couple of minutes. You could call this Lipstate’s reel record, capsulizing the immense amount of ground she can cover stylistically.

As you would expect from a series of compositions from the lockdown-and-lethal-injection era, it’s on the dark side. Bass is more prominent here than it usually is in Lipstate’s work, and her guitar is more spare, often less processed, in contrast with all the swirling, synthesized orchestration.

She begins with a bit of icy, loopy dreampop, revisiting the decade of the 80s later with hints of whimsical new wave and flickering bits of 80s goth. From there a baroque ominousness takes centerstage, forcefully, in Never to Return. The point where Lipstate backs away from the FX in favor of an insistent, unprocessed sound over the lush orchestration packs a quiet wallop..

From there the sonics get more ominously heroic, a battlefield tableau unfolding, the murky mists growing denser as the suspense rises. Organ-like textures shift through the sonic picture; a warpy calm and twinkle ensue

A trio of Twin Peaks paraphrases come across as homages, along with a handful of wry quotes from the cheesy past. Gritty loops recur along with an eerie starriness. Lipstate brings the album full circle, but with more of a raw, distorted edge. This is not escapist art: it’s a work that reflects the here and now. When the documentary about the crimes against humanity in 2020 and 2021, and the trials afterward, is written, Lipstate is as good a candidate as any to come up with the score.

Ward Hayden and the Outliers Put Out a Smart, Subtly Lyrical, Searingly Relevant Americana Rock Record

Ward Hayden and the Outliers play catchy, high-voltage, lyrically edgy Americana rock. Their new album Free Country – available as a name-your-price download at Bandcamp – was written and recorded during the lockdown, although the political content is more subtext than it is central in Hayden’s sharply detailed narratives. He keeps his songs short, sings in an unselfconsciously soulful baritone and likes escape anthems.

The band open with a brisk four-on-the-floor burner, Nothing to Do (For Real This Time), which strongly brings to mind Matt Keating, another great songwriter with a Massachusetts connection:

A stranger in my hometown,
A stranger in my own house
I can’t go home, I burned that bridge, spent my last dime
I’ve got nothing to do for real this time
This is what happens when you wake up
All the cool kids in the class
Just actors in a mask…

The band – Hayden on guitar and vocals, Cody Nilsen on lead guitar and pedal steel, Greg Hall on bass and Josh Kiggans on drums – slow down for Shelly Johnson, a grim salute to the Twin Peaks character. “Muscle and mind are two different things, that’s why smalltown queens rarely keep their kings,” Hayden observes. The outro is priceless.

“It seems the truth no longer matters,” Hayden relates in I’d Die For You, a brisk shuffle fueled by Nilsen’s steel:

Life isn’t like the movies, you think just what you believe,
No matter your perspective
As fate would have it
We’ve got to share reality

Political message cached in a love song, Soviet style – or lockdown-era Massachusetts style.

The band work off a familiar Link Wray riff as Sometimes You Gotta Leave gets underway, twelve-string jangle contrasting with distorted roar and soaring bass, with a big careening guitar outro. Middle Man is part loping, twangy southwestern gothic and part honkytonk: Hayden’s message is carpe diem.

Over a punchy twin-guitar crunch, he contemplates the end of the world – and the heroism that could stop it – in All Gone Mad, a capsule of the ugly early days of the lockdown:

Seriously, I’m asking, as I’ve been thinking
That if you ain’t Babe Ruth then you ain’t Abe Lincoln
You don’t die trying, until you just get old
Then you ride down the road with your blinkers still blinking

Hayden goes back to the carpe diem theme in the escape anthem Bad Time to Quit Drinkin’ – the reference to a famous song by the Who is a typically sardonic touch. Irregardless, a Buddy Holly-ish shuffle, touches on the interminable torture so much of the world has suffered under lockdowns, and the mess future generations will have to clean up:

All we’ve got is the damn tv
Leading us from the path to glory
I don’t want this reality

As Hayden sees it, Indiana is a place where “The devil rocks the cradle, it’s in the soil, in the air and one and all.” He and the band close the record with When the Hammer Falls, a smoldering, swaying number that sounds a lot like the Dream Syndicate. It’s a good bet that producer Eric “Roscoe” Ambel is responsible for one or more of the noisy guitar multitracks. It’s been a real slow year for rock records, and it may get even slower. Be that what it may, this is one of the best of the bunch.

Fearless Texans Raise Their Voices For Freedom in Austin

Songwriter Five Times August was obviously amped to open Texans for Vaccine Choice‘s massive protest at the Capitol building in Austin yesterday. So amped that as he left the stage, he forgot to tell the audience who he was. It took a vociferous reminder from a woman in the front row to send him back to the mic. You can watch the whole performance, as well as the inspiring parade of medical professionals and activists afterward, at the Highwire.

For someone who over the past year has been writing catchy, corrosively funny, tragically perceptive protest songs, gigs don’t get any better than the chance to play to a robust, impressively diverse crowd of over a thousand people. The guitarist and singer otherwise known as Brad Skistimas opened with his lone cover of the day, an aptly Steve Earle-influenced take of Tom Petty’s Won’t Back Down. Then the lyrics and the jokes started flying, fast and furious.

God Help Us All, a spiky, fingerpicked tune, might be the biggest viral hit (pun intended) Skistimas has had so far, no doubt due in part to the hilarious video on the front page of his website.

Citizen fools and brand new rules make everyone a hero now
Keep your distance, no resistance, only do what you’re allowed…
See no evil, bow to the needle, didn’t we turn out great?
Sick is the new hell, poor is the new well, truth is whatever they say…
Divide and conquer, weak not stronger, everybody know your place
Do it now, it won’t hurt, dig into your own dirt, virtue found its grave

His third number was an update on what Woody Guthrie did with This Land Is Your Land. The horror-stricken ballad Jesus What Happened to Us was taken down by youtube, no surprise considering the lyrics. It’s Eve of Destruction with a locked-in, lockdown-era focus: “Keep staring at your smartphone, get dumber every week,” Skistimas taunted.

The funniest song of the afternoon (and most hilarious video he’s made so far) was Outttayerdaminde, a rapidfire Subterranean Homesick Blues flavored broadside that makes savage fun of narcissists run amok on Tik Tok. The quietest and most sobering number was a new one, a sad waltz titled Silent War:

Someone is trying to sell you the cure
Same one who made the disease
And they’ll try to convince you, and make you feel sure
But hey, there ain’t no guarantee
They’ve covered your mouth and tied back your hands
They did it to all of the kids
And nobody knows all the damage it’s done
And won’t ask until the master permits

He wound up the set with the bouncy, defiant I Will Not Be Leaving Quietly.

The speakers afterward were a microcosm of the kind of ordinary heroes who have sprung up around the world in the past year and a half. Physician assistant Miguel Escobar, whose incendiary address to his local muzzlemaniac school board went viral a couple weeks ago, spoke truth to power in both English and Spanish (even if you’re a non-native Spanish speaker, he’s very easy to understand). He takes the mic at 1:19:00.

Irrepressibly upbeat hero nurse Jennifer Bridges – who is suing her former employer, Houston Methodist Hospital for being wrongfully fired for refusing the kill shot, even though she has natural immunity to Covid – is at 2:09:55. The Highwire’s Del Bigtree closed the afternoon with an impromptu challenge to the crowd to take the energy of the rally home with them. He’s at 3:18:21 in the video.

As the irreplaceable and tirelessly entertaining Dr. Pam Popper has revealed, the 70% figure the US government has been throwing around is a lie. The Kaiser Family Foundation study she cites, based on individual state records, puts the actual percentage of the population who’ve been coerced or terrorized into taking the kill shot at less than half that. Bigtree elaborated on a point he made a couple weeks ago on the Highwire, that the roughly sixty percent majority who won’t take the kill shot is not going to budge, and that the PR campaign behind it is dead in the water. Our challenge is to be less of a silent majority, organize and get back to normal, because nobody’s going to do it for us.

Speaking of which, there’s a big protest at City Hall here in Manhattan on August 25 at 4 PM.

A Smart, Provocative, Funny, Swinging Album From Singer Lauren Lee

Lauren Lee distinguishes herself with a clear uncluttered soprano as well as her cynical, spot-on sense of humor, unusually strong lyrical sensibility and acerbic chops at the piano. Among pianists who also can handle the mic, only Champian Fulton is in her league. Lee’s songs are sharp, relevant and tackle both the philosophical and political, far beyond the standard jazz singer terrain of affairs of the heart and their aftermath. Her album The Consciousness Test with her Space Jazz Trio featuring bassist Charley Sabatino and drummer Andy O’Neil is streaming at Bandcamp. It’s as provocative as it is entertaining.

The album’s first track is Power Lines, Lee’s catchy, terse vocalese solos over a tumbling backdrop as the song coalesces:

Coming down
The leaves are falling to the ground below…
Mass devastation in the distance
How can we take shelter when so much must be done…
Enjoy the stillness while it lasts.

She takes it out over catchy, circling syncopation. Hurricane Sandy reflection or premonition?

The title track starts out as a briskly swinging number in 12/4: “Nightmares don’t just happen while you’re sleeping,” Lee warns. Everything goes quiet, then her piano slowly brings it back:

Feeling discomfort is part of the norm,
Insanity scenes take over your dreams…
You don’t own me you cowardly fearmongering bully

Although it could be a lockdown-era parable, this anti-narcissist broadside actually dates back to 2018 or maybe even before. Some insights are timeless.

Lee and trio follow with Demons, a fast, pulsing, catchy jazz waltz: “It’s all in your head,” is the gist. Voyager begins as an broodingly enigmatic piano-and-vocal number: a bass pulse comes in with scrapes and shimmers from the cymbals, lots of rhythmic shifts, and a long, bitingly gorgeous, glimmering piano solo over searching bass at the center.

The rhythms get much more playful in Oh No Oh No Oh No, from leaping quasi-rubato to steady swing. “Could this be the thing that I fear the most…calm me down, hey let’s build a blanket fort from the world,” Lee cajoles. She sticks with straight-up swing for The Life Cycle, contemplating both the biological and metaphorical need to “disturb the parasitic order of the undead but barely living.”

The Procrastination Song is about unraveling, Lee’s piano leading the disintegration to an unexpected calm. She closes the album with Moral, shifting from a moodily unsettled intro to a precise clave groove. Here the humor is very subtle, a tongue-in-cheek look at the certainty that fuels various kinds of human behavior.