New York Music Daily

Love's the Only Engine of Survival

Month: October, 2021

Haunting Turkish Sounds From a Water Tower

Today’s installment of the daily, October-long Halloween celebration here draws on a style familiar to horror movie fans: classical choral music. But this is hardly your typical gothic crypt tableau.

Singer Dashon Burton, of adventurous contemporary classical choir Roomful of Teeth, brought his colleagues his new arrangement of Turkish composer Alev Lenz‘s song Fall Into Me. The ensemble liked it so much they decided to record it in an old seven-story water tank in Colorado known for its incredible natural reverb.

And it’s everything you could possibly want: haunting chromatics, ominously droning lows, but also an unexpected sense of hope. Tiredness and a little torture factor into the English lyrics, dovetailing with the zeitgeist of the past nineteen months. Give this maxi-single a spin at Bandcamp and get lost for five minutes.

A Colorful, Counterintuitive World Premiere Organ Recording of a Famous Symphony

Every year throughout October, this blog runs a monthlong Halloween celebration of dark music. Much as it’s always fun to think outside the box and include styles that wouldn’t normally be associated with a day of the dead, it’s just as much fun to revisit familiar idioms, and one of those is classical organ music. But today’s album is an especially colorful piece, organist Thilo Muster‘s world premiere recording of Eberhard Klotz’s transcription of Bruckner’s Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, streaming at Spotify.

Beginning around two centuries ago and for many decades afterward, it was common for European organists to play music written for symphony orchestra, for audiences in small or rural communities who couldn’t make it to the big city to see the genuine item. But this one is special: it’s arguably better than the original, and wouldn’t be out of place in the Charles Widor catalog. Klotz’s transcription is noteworthy for its translucence: themes never get subsumed in bluster. Muster plays with dynamism amid steady pacing, his registrations taking full advantage of the wide, French-toned palette of the Eglise St-Martin in Dudelange, Luxembourg. Anton Bruckner, who for years made his living as a church organist and earned a reputation as a brilliant improviser, would no doubt approve.

It’s an unfinished symphony: the composer died before he could finish the concluding movement. The first rises to a rather cheery, airily anthemic sway, then at the change to minor, Muster pulls out the stops and the effect is breathtaking. A cuckoo phrase over a gentle march gets spun in stately style through a series of increasingly serious variations, stern peaks, calmer valleys and tidal atmospherics. Muster really takes his time after a full stop as the long upward trajectory continues: this is scenic ride, and he wants everybody to be looking out the window.

Muster masterfully alternates a cheery strut with a big, puffy pulse as the second movement gets underway, up to the mighty, torrential Russian dance coda. He pulls back but keeps a matter-of-fact drive going in movement three – the closest thing we have to a conclusion. It’s more of an energetic stroll than a march; likewise, the volleys of eighth notes at the peak are a swirl rather than a torrent, setting up the descent into calm, wistful reflection.

Smart, Broodingly Evocative Spoken Word and Electronics From Blue Lick

Today’s Halloween installment – streaming at Bandcamp – is Hold On, Hold Fast, Chicago duo Blue Lick‘s disquieting album of spoken word and electronics. There’s nothing traditionally Halloweenish about this, although frontwoman Havadine Stone’s worldview is relentlessly unflinching. Ben Baker Billington gives her provocative, poetic imagery a typically chilly, squiggly synth backdrop.

The album is best appreciated as a contiguous whole: the individual segments vary from very brief to around the three minute range. “If I’m not brave enough to drop it I’ll turn it upside down,” Stone muses in the first track

“If something is flat and wide open, you can’t hide in it, can you?” Stone asks at one point during the second. She’s talking about the Midwest, but there’s obvious subtext. Not a pivotal moment, but it’s characteristic of how Stone works

“Every human you see was pushed and pulled out of a wet dark place, of course there is no question we grope, eyes shut in the dark…I am my own endless void, I am my own iron weight, I am my own tapeworm.”

But hardly everything here is grim and cynical. Stone’s sardonically detailed portrait of relationship angst in the fourth track is irresistibly funny. She revisits that theme, in a more allusively sinister way, in track seven. Then later there’s “An otherwise shadow-boxed conversation. There’s that pull again. Do you drop the rope, hang the line on the branch and walk away whistling a tune, thinking, “Dang, sure glad I got outta that one…”

One of the album’s more playfully loopy synth-scapes gives Stone a canvas for a reflection on autosuggestive self-empowerment…for starters, anyway. And the narrative about the kids on the beach in the tenth segment can’t conceal a dark undercurrent. Snarkiest line here: “She’s a dead ringer from the back, isn’t she.” As strong a lyricist as Stone is, what we really need from her is a book – or a Substack feed.

Distantly Melancholy, Catchy, Profoundly Relevant New Symphonic Themes From Max Richter

Although pianist and composer Max Richter’s new album Exiles – streaming at Spotify – is built around a suite that reflects on the trans-Mediterranean refugee crisis which reached horror pitch starting in the mid-teens, not all of it is dark. And when it is, it’s distantly melancholic rather than outright morbid. He supplies the piano and keys here, joined with elegance and lushness by the Baltic Sea Philharmonic under the baton of Kristjan Järvi.

Richter’s themes are as translucent as they are lush – he knows that even reduced to most succinct terms, a hook is still a hook and this album is full of hum-alongs. Henryk Gorecki is a persistent influence here, as is Steve Reich in places. Yann Tiersen‘s more ambitious work also comes to mind frequently as well.

The Haunted Ocean serves as a brief curtain-lifter with its ominously atmospheric, shifting sheets. Infra 5 strongly evokes Gorecki’s iconic Symphony No.3, although this comes across as more of a study in wave motion than a cavatina, as the orchestra follow a long upward trajectory. It ends suddenly and completely unresolved – just like the refugee crisis?

Flowers of Herself, written to reflect a Mrs. Dalloway-like bustle, has a brightly circling, Reichian atmosphere. On the Nature of Daylight comes across as a more incisive variation on the album’s second piece, a resolute violin leading an understated, subtle counterpoint.

Richter plays a simple, chiming four-chord sequence to open the album’s title suite, the strings drifting behind him at a much slower pace. Where one refugee goes, so goes the world, just more slowly? Let that sink in for a moment. Calmly and airily, with an increasingly defiant, striding rhythm, Richter does that at symphonic proportions.

Creepy Country From North of the Border

Today’s Halloween installment is a single. Monckton, New Brunswick honkytonk singer Chris Melanson’s Last to Say Goodbye could be a love song to a dead wife, or girlfriend: as morbid, maudlin country goes, it’s a classic of its kind. And particularly appropriate considering the events unfolding around the world at this moment in history.

A Restriction-Free Show From One Of New York’s Most Interesting, Individualistic Jazz Reedmen

Until last year’s lockdown, multi-reedman Mike McGinnis was a ubiquitous presence in the New York jazz scene. He’s an eclectic, erudite composer and arranger, as adept on the sax as the clarinet, equally informed by Americana and music from across the European continent. With his lush nine-piece Road Trip Band, he rescued Bill Smith’s picturesque 1956 Concerto for Clarinet from third-stream jazz obscurity. But as serious and straightforward as much of his own work is, he also has a great sense of humor. It’s anybody’s guess who he’s playing with at his gig at 2 PM at Parkside Plaza in Prospect Lefferts Gardens on Oct 17, but it’s bound to be entertaining, especially as there are also dance performances on the bill. The space is at the corner of Parkside and Ocean Avenue, close to the Q stop at Parkside Ave.

One particularly colorful project McGinnis has been involved with for over a decade is the Four Bags. He plays clarinet and bass clarinet in the band alongside trombonist Brian Drye, guitarist Sean Moran and another trombonist, Jacob Garchik, who plays accordion. Their most recent release, Waltz, came out in 2017 and is still up at Bandcamp. The connecting thread is a frequent but hardly omnipresent time signature: they should have called the album The Three-Four Bags.

To set the stage, they put a coy dixieland spin on what could be a Mexican folk tune, El Caballo Bayo, then go fullscale cartoon on you. It’s obvious, but impossible not to laugh.

The joke in the second track, Runaway Waltz is polyrhythms – those, and a baroquely comedic sensibility. Waltz of the Jacobs is a brassy, Belgian-tinged musette, the four taking a couple of increasingly cartoonish detours before Drye and Garchik engage in some calmer, completely deadpan clowning around.

Invisible Waltz is not a John Cage cover but one of the deliciously slow, airy, sinister tunes the group like to throw at you once in awhile. The group go back to jaunty latin sounds with Puerta Del Principe, which also has droll hints at flamenco, unexpectedly stormy gusts and a head-scratchingly exuberant McGinnis clarinet solo.

Vaults Dumb ‘Ore bears a suspicious resemblance to a famously venomous Randy Newman song that Nina Simone covered. The band switch her out for a brooding, bolero-tinged interplay between accordion and guitar, then Drye adds a surprisingly somber extra layer before Moran takes it into increasingly fanged psychedelia. Finally, the jokes kick in, one poker-faced quote after another.

G is for Geezus is a buffoonish New Orleans theme. There are also bits and pieces of variations on Les Valse Des As, the wryly nocturnal closing cut, scattered throughout the album. Fans of funny jazz acts like the Microscopic Septet and Mostly Other People Do the Killing will enjoy this goofy but very seriously assembled stuff.

Another Allusively Menacing, Lyrical Masterpiece From Ward White

Ward White is the Elvis Costello of the 21st century. Nobody does deviously whirlwind literary wordplay and catchy tunesmithing better. Like Costello, White is prolific – thirteen albums, including his latest, The Tender Age, streaming at Bandcamp. His influences are vast, he thinks outside the box, but he’s had the good sense to resist getting in over his head (Elvis C turned out to be great at string quartets but was, um, less successful with opera buffo and hip-hop). And White is arguably even darker than the past century’s greatest songwriter.

And he’s a hell of a lead guitarist, and a damn good bass player too. The new album features his longtime collaborators Tyler Chester on keys and the Wallflowers’ Mark Stepro on drums. This is their best album together: they’ve become White’s Attractions. Tenacious D bassist John Spiker engineered with his usual retro purism and flair.

Allusive violence and an ever-present menace have come to permeate most of White’s most recent material. The first track, Dirty Clouds, is a slow, funk-tinged number, Chester’s echoey Wurlitzer percolating beneath White’s dissociatively grim imagery. Check out the hilarious video – is this a metaphor for media terrormongering? Maybe a little bit. There are innumerable levels of meaning in White’s songs: they don’t just stand up to repeated listening, they require it. Catchy as his catalog is, it’s not for people with short attention spans or the faint of heart.

Track two, Easy Meat is one of White’s more sinisterly evocative narratives, vintage 80s powerpop pulsing along on a tense new wave beat, with a spacerock guitar solo at the center. Reduced to lowest terms, it’s about acting on impulses that would be unthinkable to anyone outside, say, the Gates Foundation or the California governor’s office.

Rhyme schemes, metaphors and reflections on anomie fly fast and furious in the Bowie-tinged Let’s Don’t Die At the Stoplight – like the gunfire White once found himself caught in while waiting at an intersection:

It’s not what he expects
But how he expects it
So quick to arrive
So grisly an exit
The eye takes an eye
And the windshield reflects it
You can put it into gear again….

White imagines Chet Baker in the afterlife, trying to pull himself together in Dentures, a mashup of piano-fueled Bowie balladry and Richard Thompson ghoulishness:

You’re either making art or getting paid
And the angel licked his nails and thought,
“All the really good ones die afraid.”
Put down your horn, you won’t need it
The day you’re born, you’re defeated…

Chester’s enigmatic organ solo is spot-on beyond belief.

On Foot, a brisk new wave/powerpop burner, is a murder ballad: the cruellest joke is musical rather than lyrical. The most Bowie-inspired song here is the album’s bittersweetly catchy title track, White channeling Mick Ronson with his solo in a surreal tale of a LA cop casually making a shocking existential choice.

One of White’s recurrent themes is the question of where everyday mishegas crosses the line, whether that might endanger merely the crazy person or everyone around them. Gail, Where’s Your Shoes is a prime example, complete with tantalizingly woozy guitar solo. Is this a thinly veiled portrait of a woman pouring herself out of a cab on a Williamsburg avenue in the fall of 2006? Hmm…..

White builds a more overtly cynical, vengeful narrative over Stonesy sarcasm in Wasn’t It Here: as he does throughout the album, Stepro’s casual flurries drive the murderous point home. White hits his chorus pedal for icy 80s gloss in Heavy Lifting, the album’s funniest number.

“Suicide rates are an urban myth if you look into it,” White’s titular Karate Dentist relates over a backdrop that could be Steely Dan at their most rocking, White closes the album with Monrovia, a distantly Turkish (or Smiths) tinged kiss-off anthem, and the only place where he stops trying to conceal the snarl beneath the surface. He’s no stranger to best-albums-of-the-year list here: his 2013 album Bob and his 2020 release Leonard at the Audit both topped the full-length charts here, and this may end up at the top of the crop of 2021 as well.

Becca Stevens and the Secret Trio Team Up For Balkan and Middle Eastern-Tinged Magic

Since the zeros, songwriter Becca Stevens has built a distinctive and often brilliant body of work, playing shapeshifting art-rock and chamber pop with a rotating cast who typically draw on a jazz background. She’s also an aptly quirky and brilliant reinterpreter of Bjork.

The Secret Trio are one of the world’s foremost Near Eastern ensembles. Stevens’ decision to collaborate with them has paid off with the best album she has ever made, streaming at Spotify. It’s unlike anything else that’s ever been recorded.

The album opens with Flow in My Tears, a catchy, loopily rhythmic, vaguely Indian-tinged tone poem of sorts. Ismail Lumanovski’s clarinet looms broodingly within the lattice of Ara Dinkjian’s oud and Tamer Pınarbaşı’s kanun. Is the line “flow in my tears,” or “flow in my beer?” Both? Either one works.

Pınarbaşı’s elegant ripples prove to make a perfect background, Dinkjian adding magical textures in Bring It Back, a simple, lilting trip-hop tune. The tantalizingly brief, achingly melismatic clarinet solo toward the end is the icing on the cake.

Stevens builds enigmagic, misty multitracks over more Indian-flavored trip-hop in We Were Wrong. Sometimes Dinkjian plays a simple bassline, sometimes breaking the surface, Lumanovski adding mysterious accents. Stevens’ guitar mingles with the ripples from the kanun from the oud in California, an uneasy, enigmatic nocturne with what seem to be references to the refugee crisis.

Lumanovski’s otherworldly dipping, floating lines introduce Stevens’ mighty, wordless one-woman choir in Eleven Roses, a gorgeously Armenian-flavored tableau. Her ripe, moody vocals echo Jenifer Jackson in Lucian, a trickily rhythmic, equally gorgeous tune, Dinkjian anchoring the soaring, flurrying lines of the clarinet and kanun: Pınarbaşı’s solo will give you goosebumps.

Stevens contemplates a refuge “away from the noisy crowd, where I can see the pale stars rising” in Pathways, a magical blend of the Balkans and catchy American janglerock. Lush layers of vocals float over spare, loopy phrases throughout the next track, Maria

Lullaby For the Sun is a cheerfully lilting pre-dusk theme that gives way to a brief, poignant oud solo before Stevens picks up the pace again. The group imaginatively recast a very Beatlesque riff as incisive Balkan music in The Eye, a metaphorically loaded view of individual powers of perception. The four musicians close this magically cross-pollinated collaboration with a swaying, optimistic, soaring anthem, For You the Night Is Still.

This is a lock for one of the best albums of 2021.

Prophetic, Hauntingly Gorgeous, Insightful New Music and Spoken Word From Tessa Lena

For the past several years, investigative journalist Tessa Lena has been one of the most prophetic and poetic observers of how digital technology has empowered creeping fascism on a global scale. With last year’s lockdown here in New York, her work gained traction exponentially. Her Substack feed quickly became a must-read for anyone trying to make sense of what’s happened since.

But she’s also a breathtakingly powerful singer and instrumentalist. Last summer, she took one of her most succinct and portentously accurate pieces, The Physical World Is the Only World We Have (a longer version of the lyrics appears here) and turned it into a gorgeous mosaic of spoken word and haunting, Armenian-tinged soundscape. Her wordless vocals as she reaches for the sky will give you chills. A good digital approximation of an electric mandolin, or a balalaika, maybe, adds spare bittersweetness. The whole piece is streaming at her podcast, Make Language Great Again. Tessa Lena’s commentary is as grimly funny as it is insightful and poignant:

Data’s rotten,
Tests are toast.
News is sullen,
Coast to coast.
Feudal darkness
Here and now!
To the masters
Peasants bow.
Facts are fiction,
Love is screen.
Gossip’s trending,
Trends are mean.
Hear, hear,
Where’s the joy
Ask Alexa.
She’ll annoy.

We are all losing our minds….I know that long-term stress is very effective in turning off human ability to think straight. Once we’ve been battered for a long enough time, our sensory patterns will be damaged sufficiently, and we’ll be so exhausted and hungry for any semblance of joy that we’ll accept anything to be allowed to do basic things in the world. To breathe. To laugh. To be a little bit alive, to be a little bit free, no matter how short the digital leash. We are like frogs in a pot of water that is warming up. We are getting used to it…we are at a major crossroads, and I am positive that the time to be fully human—not cyborg—is now….

Something terrible is happening to us, and it is not a drill. It is very complex and very trivial. It is imminent and cumulative. Every small fragment of the disaster can be explained in a respectable way, but the big picture is terrifying. We’ve given up our senses and our ancient instincts, but our leaders have no heads. We are not in good hands. We are shackled to a broken algorithm. We are on our own, and the sooner we realize it, the better our chance of surviving.

Trio Karénine Play Transformative Music For a Transformative Time

We are in the midst of a shift of ages, watching the final ugly convulsions of centuries-old systems of repression and murder as they self-destruct. To paraphrase Dr. David Martin, the global totalitarians are the brontosaurus that ate itself out of existence since its pea brain couldn’t adapt. At such a transformative time in history, there’s plenty of music to inspire us as we find our way out of the wreckage and regroup. One particularly timely recording is Trio Karénine‘s imaginative version of Schoenberg’s Verklarte Nacht, from their latest album La Nuit Transfigurée, streaming at Soundcloud.

This group’s take of the piano trio transcription by Eduard Steuermann is an eye-opener. Pianist Paloma Kouider sets an understatedly crushing funereal mood to introduce the first movement, violinist Fanny Robilliard leading the troubled upward drive, cellist Louis Rodde a disquietingly lingering presence. The trio’s gusty but minutely attuned attack lures the inner, surrealist beast out of its comfortable lair in the second movement.

They give movement three a more strikingly emphatic ache, only to watch it sepulchrally flit away. The thread loosens with Kouider’s Romantic glitter and the strings’ matter-of-fact counterpoint in the fourth movement, setting the stage for a wistful if guardedly forward-looking conclusion that fits in alongside the composer’s contemporaries Debussy and Ravel.

The album’s first piece is Liszt’s Tristia, a transcription from his suite Années de Pèlerinage. The sparseness and wounded restraint are stunning, particularly Kouider’s muted, chromatically chilling pedalpoint behind Rodde’s plaintive solo and then the strings’ understatedly conjoined angst. Likewise, the sudden descent from a stately (some might say cliched) pavane into increasingly explosive torment on the wings of the violin and Kouider’s eerily twinkling riffs. In context, the homey sentimentality of the finale comes as a real surprise.

The group also follow a matter-of-fact, dynamically sensitive but also playfully jaunty trajectory through Schumann’s Studies in Canonic Form, op.56