New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Category: art-rock

Spottiswoode at Joe’s Pub: Elegant Dissolution

The most unselfconsciously beautiful solo during Spottiswoode’s album release show at Joe’s Pub Friday night came during the louchest song of the night. Candace DeBartolo added subtle flourish to her deep-Coltrane tenor sax resonance during a number titled Love Saxophone. For anyone who hasn’t already guessed, you need a Y chromosome to own one. Frontman/guitarist Jonathan Spotitiswoode said that at the time he’d written that one, he was “another person.”

There were many other unselfconsciously beautiful moments throughout the night. Still Small Voice Inside, one of the best tracks on the new album Lost in the City, comes across as cutting, knowingly aphoristic, Ray Davies-ish late 60s folk-rock. Onstage, the band played it even more mutedly – as it turns out, it has a spiritual dimension, inspired by a familiar saying by the bandleader’s North Dakota-born singer mom. Spottiswoode asked the sold-out crowd if they’d indulge him in a “kumbaya moment” on the vocalese section after the chorus: pretty much everybody sang along.

Another unexpected high point, if a similarly quiet one, was Batman & Robin. The band played this straight-up jazz song with elegance and grace, an expansively poignant, picturesque account of a guy trying to get the most out of weekend custody with his kids. Spottiswoode isn’t necessarily known as a jazz guitarist, but the song underscored whatever cred he wants to take from it.

There were plenty of loud songs, too, all of them drawn from the new album, since as lead guitarist Riley McMahon confided, this band never thought they’d never get back together after the bandleader’s recent relocation to his native London. Guest violinist Antoine Silverman’s shivery, slithery acerbic, Romany riffage kicked off The Walk of Shame, a booze-infused wee hours confrontation with grim reality. Throughout the show, Spottiswoode’s weathered baritone brought to mind Nick Cave, especially when he really cut loose. Knocking back several drinks – vodka cranberry, maybe? – during the set probably had something to do with that.

Trumpeter Kevin Cordt added ripe, Lynchian tones to raise the menace of the more cabaret-infused tunes. Bassist John Young switched nimbly between Fender and upright, drummer Tim Vaill maintaining a slinky, often latin-flavored groove and Spottiswoode fired off some unhinged blues licks during a couple of latin soul anthems. But the star of the night, musically, was pianist Tony Lauria. Shifting effortlessly between surreal Brecht/Weill blues, starlit neoromanticism, lively Afro-Cuban tumbles, funereal organ and even a perfect evocation of Springsteen pianist Roy Bittan, he put on a clinic in how to make the music match the mood. The group closed counterintuively and almost elegaically with I Don’t Regret, a calmly waltzing shout-out to Spottiswoode’s days living on East 5th Street, when the East Village was a hotbed of artistic talent. Those days are gone, for now anyway – but at least we have the album, and a group no worse for the wear and tear of 21 years together.

Advertisements

A Lushly Kinetic Album and a Chelsea Show by Inventive String Quintet Sybarite5

String quintet Sybarite5’s imaginative instrumental reinventions of Radiohead songs earned them worldwide acclaim, but their Thom Yorke fixation is only part of the picture. On their latest album, Outliers – streaming at Bandcamp – they bring their signature lush, kinetic sound to a collection of relatively brief, energetically balletesque pieces by some of their favorite indie classical composers. The result is part contemporary dance soundtrack, part 21st century chamber music: the connecting thread is tunefulness. They’re bringing that blend to a show at the Cell Theatre on Dec 7 at 8 PM; cover is $27.

The album opens with the catchy, punchily circling Getting Home (I must be…), by Jessica Meyer, the violins of Sami Merdinian and Sarah Whitney bustling tightly alongside Angela Pickett’s viola, Laura Metcalf’s cello and Louis Levitt’s bass.

Yann’s Flight, by Shawn Conley vividly echoes Philip Glass’ work for string quartet, right down to the dancing pizzicato from the bass and the cello’s stern counterpoint. As the group build the piece, hints of an Irish reel contrast with stillness, then more triumphantly rhythmic images of flight.

Eric Byers’ Pop Rocks is a playful, coyly bouncing staccato web of cell-like, Glassine phrasing. Dan Visconti’s triptych Hitchhiker’s Tales begins with the alternating slow swoops and momentary flickers of Black Bend, slowly morphing into a majestic blues with some snazzy, slithery, shivery work from the violins. The considerably shorter Dixie Twang gives the group a launching pad for icepick pizzicato phrasing, followed by another miniature, Pedal to the Metal, where they scamper together to the finish line.

They dig into the punchy, polyrhythmic scattato of Revolve, by Andy Akiho, with considerable relish; Levitt’s understated, modal bassline anchors the lithe theme, the violins eventually rising to a whirlwind of blues riffage. Mohammed Fairouz’s Muqqadamah, which follows, is the most pensive, airy, baroque-flavored track here.

The rest of the album is inspired by dance styles from around the world and across the centuries. The band expand deviously from a stark, wickedly catchy 19th century minor-key blues theme in Kenji Bunch’s Allemande pour Tout le Monde. Daniel Bernard Roumain’s Kompa for Toussaint also builds out of a minor-key oldtime blues riff to some neat, microtonal hints of a famous Nordic theme, then an enigmatic mist. Sarabande, another Byers piece, slowly emerges from and then returns to a wistful spaciousness.

The album’s most shapeshiftingly catchy track, Michi Wiancko’s Blue Bourée blends blues, the baroque and a little funk. The final number is Gi-gue-ly, by cinematic violist/composer Ljova, a delicious, Balkan-inflected, trickily syncopated tune that grows to pulsing misterioso groove. It’s a party in a box, probably the last thing a lot of people would expect from a contemporary classical string ensemble.

Combo Chimbita Air Out Their Darkly Shamanic Psychedelic Grooves at Lincoln Center

This past evening at Combo Chimbita’s feral, darkly psychedelic show, Lincoln Center’s Viviana Benitez explained that the dancefloor at the atrium space had been opened up, “So that you will feed off their energy and they will feed off you.” She was on to something.

The Colombian-American band were celebrating the release of their first single, Testigo, from a forthcoming album due out in 2019. Drummer Dilemastronauta built a boomy, shamanic triplet groove over an enveloping low drone as Niño Lento’s synth woozed in and out. Then a whistle of wind echoed the rain raging outside, and frontwoman Carolina Oliveros took the stage. Decked out in a striking, stark black gothic skirt and blouse, silvery bracelets and facepaint flickering under the low lights, she was an Incan avenging angel hell-bent on righting centuries of conquistadorian evil. As the group rose to a screaming peak behind her, she didn’t waste time cutting loose, Niño Lento blasting out eerie sheets of reverb from his Fender Jazzmaster. Maybe because the guitar was so loud, she was even more ferocious than usual: their usual home base, Barbes, is a lot smaller.

Next it was bassist Prince of Queens’ turn to get a catchy minor-key riff swirling from his keys, then a reggae-tinged pulse as the guitar fired off a flickering, deep-space hailstorm. A stygian vortex of sound took centstage as Oliveros left her trance momentarily, then the group hit a galloping Ethiopiques beat with a furious, insistent- bullerengue-style call-and-response, which made sense considering that Oliveros also fronts the even trancier, considerably more rustic Afro-Colombian collective Bulla En El Barrio. It was a galloping constelacion of Los Destellos psychedelic cumbia and the Black Angels.

Oliveros stalked across the stage, channeling an increasingly forceful series of witchy voices as the next tune grew from a brooding, reggae-tinged groove to a hypnotically cantering blend of icepick reverb guitar and woozy synth swirl. The song after that was just as psychedelic, a deep-space hailstorm of hammer-on guitar over dubwise bass and Oliveros’ looming intensity front and center, foreshadowing the big crescendo the band would hit with the new single a bit later.

From there Oliveros’ imploring voice rose over an echoing, bass-heavy slink that slowly shifted from reggae to cumbia and back and forth, the menace of Niño Lento’s funereal organ closer and closer on the horizon. Sinister dub bass anchored icy minor-key clang, giving Oliveros a long launching pad for her most explosive, assaultively shivery vocal attack of the evening. After awhile, it was as if the show was all just one long, grittily triumphant anthem. You might not have heard it here first, but this is the future of psychedelic rock: lyrics in something other than English and a charismatic woman out front.

The next free show at Lincoln Center’s atrium space on Broadway just north of 62nd St. is this Nov 29, a return to the usual Thursday night programming here with Time for Three playing a similarly surreal if somewhat more sedate set mashing up classical and Americana styles. Get there as close to 7:30 PM showtime as you can if you want a seat.

Twisted Psychedelic Balkan Noir From Alec K. Redfearn and the Eyesores

The first track on Alec K. Redfearn and the Eyesores’ relentlessly creepy 2012 masterpiece Sister Death was a menacing, chromatically psychedelic Balkan art-rock epic aptly titled Fire Shuffle. The Rhode Island-based accordionist/bandleader opens his similarly brilliant, macabre new one, The Opposite – streaming at Cuneiform Records – in a similar vein, with Soft Motors. The difference is that this time he’s playing all the keyboards. In many cases, he overdubs his accordion, running it through several wildly diverse effects patches. This particular number is awash in an ever-closer circling web of catchy minor-key riffs, Redfearn a one-man Balkan orchestra. “Fear won’t stop til the mornings are soft,” horn player Ann Schattle sings, deadpan but troubled.

Tramadoliday is a deviously bouncy, chromatically juicy, increasingly orchestral danse macabre, Schattle’s horn wry and steady while Redfearn conjures up lysergic Stoogoid wah-wah, bass synth fuzz and Carnival of Souls organ around a wicked Balkan accordion riff.

Drummer Matt McLaren flits around on his rims for a good approximation of a vintage drum machine to propel the hypnotic, cell-like phrases of the album’s title track, its quasar pulse looming closer and closer. Carnivore has a carnivalesque, hurdy gurdy-like theme and dark, allusively chromatic variations: “Come, turn out the lights,” is the mantra. Finally, bassist Christopher Sadlers gets a juicy fuzztone riff of his own to run underneath Redfearn’s strobe attack.

The slightly more playful, hip hop-influenced There’s a Bat Living in My Room takes its inspiration from Redfearn’s former coke dealer, whose inability to resist getting high on his own supply resulted in hallucinations reputedly more prosaically troubling than the song title. Rend the Veil blends uneasy 60s Laurel Canyon psychedelic rock into a ba-BUMP theme for the Macedonian wedding from hell, with a sick, echoingly dissociative outro that segues into Possum, a shout-out to an old Redfearn pal who killed himself. It’s the album’s hardest-hitting and most Middle Eastern-flavored track, with a spot-on Redfearn approximation of a mighty metal guitar battle theme at the center.

The final cut, Pterodactyl, is the album’s longest epic: picture a 60s Bollywood band putting a dub reggae spin on the Buzzcocks’ Why Can’t I Touch It, if you can imagine that kind of time warp. As with the band’s previous album, look for this one high on the list of best albums of 2018 next month here.

Much as Redfearn is a spellbinding player in the purest sense of the word, it would have been even better to be able to hear Rose Thomas Bannister’s elegant organ work alongside his accordion. The similarly haunting noir psychedelic Brooklyn songwriter toured with Redfearn as a sidewoman back in 2015. Onstage, the contrasting textures and interplay between the two was unadulterated sonic absinthe.

A Gorgeously Bittersweet Farewell to Manhattan from Art-Rock Maven Spottiswoode

The Manhattan that Jonathan Spottiswoode came up in back in the 1990s was far from perfect. The seeds of the city’s death by real estate speculation had already been sown. But there were a lot more places where an often witheringly lyrical, lavishly orchestrated rock band could play then than there are now. Spottiswoode & His Enemies may have sold out the release show for their latest magnum opus, Lost in the City, at Joe’s Pub on the 30th, but twenty-one years ago they could have done the same at a much bigger venue. So it’s fitting that the album – streaming at Bandcamp – is an elegaic salute to a vanished, urbane metropolis, and that Spottiswoode has since relocated to his London birthplace. At least we’ll always have the memories – and this epic.

While Spottiswoode is no stranger to largescale creations, this is arguably his most lavish release. He’s always had a knack for latin sounds, and he dives more deeply into the Spanish Caribbean here than ever before. The opening track is Hoboken. It’s dead ringer for a brooding Pink Floyd ballad: Spottiswoode’s voice has weathered to resemble Roger Waters more and more over the yearas, and Tony Lauria’s gospel-tinged piano completes the picture. The migthy Springsteenian bridge is spot-on, right down to Laura’s Roy Bittan impersonation. “I tried it like all the rest, not what I dreamed I guess, but I did ok,” Spottiswoode muses.

With its bluesy minor-key swing spiced with horn harmonies from saxophonist Candace DeBartolo and trumpeter Kevin Cordt, the title track could also be peak-era Springsteen. With Lauria’s erudite, Fever-ish solo at the center, it’s a long-lost cousin to 10th Avenue Freeze-Out. The nimble pulse of bassist John Young and drummer Tim Vaill propel the funny, filthy, syncopated latin soul anthem Love Saxophone, a look back to a period ten years further back, and several Manhattan blocks north and east. 

Antoine Silverman’s acerbic, Romany-flavored violin kicks off The Walk of Shame, a hauntingly orchestrated vignette of the dark side of the bright lights: “The night was so delicoius/Now a puddle is a mirror for Narcissus.” Then Cordt and trombonist Sara Jacovino work a punchy conversation in Because I Made You, a return to swinging oldschool soul.

The way Spottiswoode sets up the narrative in the distantly ominous, wistful clave-soul elegy Goodbye Jim McBride is too good to give away. The starkly bluesy, doomed, reverberating ambience of It’s on Me wouldn’t be out of place on Dylan’s Time Out of Mind album. Next, the band hit a slow, Lynchian swing groove with Batman & Robin, a disconsolate picture of a divorced dad out with his kids on the weekend.

Riley McMahon’s hailstone reverb guitar mingles with Lauria’s stern salsa piano and organ in Now Didn’t I? McMahon and the bandleader bulid spaghetti western menace over a 5/4 beat in Tears of Joy: as Lauria’s electric piano twinkles eerily overhead, it could be Botanica. Then the band hit a blazing soul-blues sway with Dirty Spoon.

A mashup of late 60s folk-rock Kinks and Springsteen E Street shuffle, Still Small Voice Inside could be the album’s most poignant, relevant number:

Hello, good evening
Did you accomplish what you planned?
Don’t you know the feeling
Too much supply no demand
Yeah it’s a drag, at least you tried
Now listen to the still small voice inside

Young’s big bass bends anchor McMahon’s lingering guitar and blues harp in Cry Baby. Wistful strings and Lauria’s elegant piano mingle in Sunset, a vivid, Ray Davies-esque vignette, followed by the wryly Waitsian swing blues Going Home for Christmas.

The album’s musical high point could be the swaying 6/8 noir soul instrumental East Village Melody, Cordt and then DeBartolo channeling wee-hours melancholy over the band’s glistening, distantly ominous backdrop. Spottiswoode’s gritty vocals soar in You’ll See, an unexpectedly optimistic Weimar waltz. The album winds up with I Don’t Regret, its lush strings and Leonard Cohen inflections: it’s an old rake’s colorful, defiant defense of a “sordid life.” The sounds on this album are old but timeless: it will age well, just like the guy who wrote it.

Another Relentlessly Haunting Album and an Alphabet City Gig by Guitarist Gordon Grdina

Even by his own high-voltage standards, fiery jazz oudist/guitarist Gordon Grdina has really been on a roll making albums lately. Edjeha, with his Middle Eastern jazz quartet Marrow might well be one of the half-dozen best albums released this year. His other new one, Inroads, with his quartet of reedman Oscar Noriega, pianist Russ Lossing and percussionist Satoshi Takeishi blends haunting Middle Eastern chromatics with savage improvisation and even detours into snarling doom metal and Lynchian cinematics. This is deep, dark music. Their next gig is Nov 26 at 9 PM at the old Nublu on Ave. C; cover is $10.

The album – streaming at Bandcamp – kicks off with a haunting, spaciously Satie-esque rainy-day piano tableau cruelly titled Giggles. The band follow with the album’s most epic track, Not Sure, opening with frenetic, polyrhythmic variations on a Balkan-tinged theme, disintegrating for a bit and then regrouping with a savage late 70s King Crimson focus and more of a Middle Eastern attack. Lingering psychedelic pulses give way to a brisk, twisted stroll that isn’t Britfolk or Egyptian but alludes to each of those worlds. From there the band scamper and then memorably blast their way out.

P.B.S., another epic, beginns with interchanges of creepy Rhodes and more stern acoustic piano, Grdina and Noriega – on alto sax – playing the morose central theme in tandem. A marionettish theme develops; Noriega’s microtonal, allusive circling beyond an increasingly tense center is pure genius. Deep-space oxygen bubbles escape the Sun Ra craft as solar flares loom ever closer, then sear the scenery:.Grdina’s merciless, resonant attack is breathtakingly evil.

Semantics is a brooding, morosely wafting duet for echoey, spare guitar and ghostly sax. The next epic, clocking in at practically ten minutes, is Fragments, the bandleader’s spare, spacious oud intro echoed by Lossing’s inside-the-piano flickers and muted rustles. The two develop a phantasmagorical catacomb stroll; then each band member takes a separate elegaic tour, only to reconvene with a frenetic hope against hope. Noriega’s looming foghorn solo at the end is another gloomy highlight.

The desolately crescendoing guitar/sax tableau Casper brings to mind Bill Frisell at his most disconsolate, or Todd Neufeld’s whispery work with trombonist Samuel Blaser. Kite Fight, a squirrelly and then assaultive Grdina/Noiriega duet introduces the album’s final epic, Apokalympic, Noriega eventually wafting in to join Grdina’s expansive postbop chordal guitar phrasing. Lossing’s arrival signals a turn toward franticness and terror, fueled by a scorching guitar/sax duel. The marionettish Macedonian psychedelic outro is irresistibly twisted. 

The group close with a Lynchian reprise of Giggles, Grdina’s angst-fixated, starry reverb guitar paired with Lossing’s close-to-the-vest, wounded neoromanticisms. Looks like Grdina has not one but two albums on the best of 2018 list here.

Single of the Day 11/11/18 – Lush, Majestic, Searingly Lyrical Janglerock

Noctorum – the duo of Marty Willson-Piper, this era’s greatest twelve-string guitarist and longtime member of the Church – with longtime collaborator Dare Mason – capture an indelible London moment with Piccadilly Circus in the Rain (via Soundcloud). The way they pivot out of very subtle satire to withering realism will rip your face off. Another contender for best song of 2018.

Rock n Roll Suicides of 2018, Live

The Man in the Long Black Coat is lost.

He’s never been on this Crown Heights block before. Then again, before the days of the Long Black Coat, there was no reason for anyone who didn’t live or work, or have friends or family on this block, to be here.

The address he’s looking for seems to be in an unmarked former commercial storefront on an otherwise mostly residential brownstone street. He moseys a couple of doors down to a gentrifier bar and peers in: no sign of anything out of the ordinary. Turning back, he spots a couple making their way into a darkened doorway. The Man in the Long Black Coat follows them: he’s psyched. He likes mysteries.

Another mystery immediately presents itsef when the friendly girl at the door greets him. See, if you’ve been following this oft-interrupted story here, you’ll remember that the Man in the Long Black Coat is having a problem with invisibility. People have been bumping into him, and he’s had several near-misses with Ubers blasting through intersections. It’s not that the Ubers are even running the light like they always do: it’s that they clearly don’t see him.

And it’s not that being invisible, for sometimes hours at a time, doesn’t have its benefits. The man has discovered that he can walk into any gentrifier boite in town, check out the band and not have to worry about dropping a double sawbuck on a glass of fancy beer or a tiny, garlic-deprived crostini. He just needs to stay out of the way of the kids staggering around the joint.

Unfortunately, invisibility isn’t something that the man can switch on or off. The bank, the jewelry store, the lumber yard, the supermarket: it never occurs at any of those places. He’s tried all of them, only to be disappointed every time.

But here, it’s a welcome change to be at least marginally perceptible. Because of who he is, the Man in the Long Black Coat’s favorite holiday is Halloween: invisible or not, this is the one time of the year that’s really his.

The long, rectangular groundfloor space is obviously somebody’s home – with a big stage in the back. The hosts are throwing a Halloween kegger, and there are bands. The crowd is demographically diverse, a few in costume but mostly not. Nobody’s taking selfies, and people are talking directly to one another rather than texting. The man is reminded of downtown Manhattan theatre crowds in the days before the Long Black Coat. These people are sharp, and energetic: they all look like they’d love a turn onstage.

As it turns out, many of them end up doing exactly that. One of the drummers opens the night with a few stagy Rocky Horror-style bits. Is one of those ghoul-camp numbers actually from the Rocky Horror soundtrack? It’s been so long since the Man in the Long Black Coat heard the album that he can’t remember. Being ensconsed behind a couch, close to the keg, doesn’t help the memory factor.

Toot Sweet are the first band onstage. Accordionist Mary Spencer Knapp, rocking a leopard-print bodysuit, wields her axe like a guitar. Her vocals are fierce, intense, sometimes channeling righteous rage, like a young Rachelle Garniez. The songs mash up noir cabaret and Brecht/Weill, punk and new wave, with a distant latin influence. The new wave aspect is heightened by the  second keyboard, a synthesizer, taking the occasional keening solo over a nimble rhythm section. The crowd sings along: they want more than they get.

Dressed as a superhero, Haley Bowery – leader of the Manimals – makes her way through the crowd, handing out jello shots. The Man in the Long Black Coat takes one. It’s a scary toothpaste blue, but it tastes fruity and it has a kick. The man doesn’t need it. A welcome if unexpected shift into invisible mode just a couple of hours earlier gave him a chance to crash a shi-shi Alphabet City party and pound one glass of bourbon after another like a college kid. He’s never been able to drink himself visible – usually it seems to work the other way – but the way things are going here, he reasons that this might be the night.

The Manimals take the stage: Bowery on the mic, guitarists Michael Jayne and Chris Norwood trading licks on their flashy Les Pauls, melodic bassist Jack Breslin pushing the songs alongside drummer Matt O’Koren. The Man in the Long Black Coat thinks to himself that this is what it must have been like to see Bowie around the time of the Aladdin Sane album – but with a woman out front. Back when the band were known as Haley Bowery and the Manimals, they had a bit of a glam thing going, but they sound a lot more British and a whole lot more eclectic now. Verses don’t necessarily resolve into choruses and vice versa, and there’s a lot more angst – and depth – to the songs.

And just like Bowie, there’s an alienatedly reassuring ‘you’re not alone” theme to several of the songs. So this is where all the Rock n Roll Suicides of 2018 have gone, The Man in the Long Black Coat muses. Haley was a decent singer back in 2012 – when he saw her at Webster Hall on a twinbill with the amazingly lyrical noir cabaret-punk band Hannah vs. the Many – but she is fantastic now, with a highwire wail that she cuts loose when she really wants to drive a chorus through the roof.

With her piercing blue eyes, boxcutter cheekbones and lithe stage presence, she also looks a lot bigger onstage than she really is. One superhero outfit eventually falls to the side for another superhero look, a unitard this time. Hannah Fairchild from Hannah vs. the Many takes a cameo on harmony vocals and adds her own rocket-fuel wail to the mix. At the end of the show, Haley pulls out an old song, Halloween. “Fuck the rest of them, let’s paaaarty,” is the chorus. The crowd seem to know all the words. The Man in the Long Black Coat gives the band a devils-horns salute: maybe someday we won’t need to shlep all the way to Crown Heights to see a show like this.

Happy Halloween, everybody.

The Manimals play Hank’s on Nov 9 at around 9. Hannah vs. the Many are at the Way Station on Nov 10 at 10.

Trippy, Kinetic, Lavishly Orchestrated Sounds and an Alphabet City Gig by Gadadu

Gadadu are sort of a slower My Brightest Diamond, or a more soul-influenced Arc Iris. Strings shimmer and shine, layers of acoustic and electronic keys mingle and echo, and the songs on their new album Outer Song – streaming at Bandcamp – don’t follow any standard verse/chorus pattern. They’re bringing their lush, often hypnotic art-rock swirl and pulse to an intimate gig at the Treehouse at 2A on Oct 26 at 10ish. Be aware that there’s a $12 cover.

When’s the last time you heard a majestically string-fueled trip-hop anthem with a prepared piano solo? That’s the opening track, The Lion, Nicki Adams supplying that alongside blippy electric piano, the Rhythm Method String Quartet providing the sheen above frontwoman/violist Hannah Selin’s cutting, slightly acidic vocals.

Exquisite Corpse is a coy funhouse mirror pastiche shifting suddenly and unexpectedly between psychedelic soul, a New Orleans groove, kinetic My Brightest Diamond art-rock, and trip-hop. Patrick Adams’ trumpet wafts and then blazes through the cloudbanks of orchestration.

The cover of the Beatles’ Julia is an odd choice, but the ensemble redeem themselves with both psychedelic and orchestral touches, drummer Arthur Vint propelling the group to greater heights than Paul McCartney probably ever imagined.

Selin’s pizzicato viola sparkles in tandem with her enticing vocals and the electric piano as the simply titled Life gets underway, shifting between a scurrying brightness and enveloping atmospherics. Tony Park’s clarinet contrasts with dancing, pointillistic keys amid the washes of strings in Makeshift Constellations, which could be a lavishly orchestrated early Linda Draper tune.

Chided has some of the album’s most striking, swelling and shivery orchestration: it’s the mightiest  track here, deflecting subtly into a bossa-inflected groove with the trumpet soaring overhead.

Selin’s playfully abstruse lyrical imagery reaches a savagely allusive focus in Train Blues:

Sold to brand-new folksy lemon daffodils with sorbet
Snooked-out lofts ate octopus allowed by the free trade-owned
Whistle for the wind to take me on a journey
Sand and feelings fly, the draft is in a hurry
Take me off this train

Its towering sway and dissociative train-terminal sonics bring to mind singer/keyboardist Sara McDonald’s mighty NYChillharmonic. Daniel Stein’s bass rises gracefully to puncture the swirl in the album’s final cut, Bay Songs, an ensemble of cellist Valeriya Sholokhova, violinists Sana Nagano and Gabe Valle and clarinetist Hila Zamir supplying alternately vast and stark dynamics. There’s a lot to get lost in here.

Another Dark Lyrical Masterpiece From Elysian Fields

Elysian Fields earned an avid cult following for their torchy, noir sound, fueled by frontwoman Jennifer Charles’ smoldering vocals. Since the 90s, they’ve become more epic and cinematic, so their latest album, Pink Air – streaming at Bandcamp – is a something of a departure for them. It’s arguably the most starkly straight-ahead rock record they’ve ever made. It’s also their most overtly political album, obviously inspired by the grim events since the 2016 Presidential election. And it’s one of the half-dozen best albums to come out in 2018 so far. The band are currently on European tour; the next stop is the Milla Club, Holzstrasse 28 in Munich on Oct 19 at 8 PM. Lucky concertgoers can get in for €15.30.

Polymath guitarist Oren Bloedow’s eerie chromatic bends open the album’s first song, Storm Cellar, a black-humor look at the complications of creating art while the whole world is dying – literally. Charles paints a wry picture of bunker life over a steady, simple, anthemic new wave groove from bassist Jonno Linden and drummer Matt Johnson.

The jangle of Bloedow’s twelve-string alongside Simon Hanes’ Strat open Star Sheen with Church-like lusciousness, then the two mute their strings as the song sways and Charles’ opiated vocals contemplate solitude and a certain kind of self-deception:

Only dark can feed the soul
If you don’t manipulate it
When a silent earth has spoken
Planets swoop intoxicated

Likewise, the spectre of death lingers in the distance in the muted Beyond the Horizon:

And though the flames are low
I know that they’re climbing
The neolithic flint that’s making a spark…

Thomas Bartlett’s steady lattice of electric piano anchors guest trumpeter CJ Camarieri’s balmy solo.

The guitars get growlier and Charles’ vocals get sultrier in Tidal Wave, a new wave-ish throwback to the band’s early days. Over backdrop that grows from hazy to hypnotically direct, Karen 25 is arguably the album’s most chilling track, an allusively grisly dystopic scenario from a very imminent future:

I met Karen 25 the last days of the archives
Our instructions scrub the files
From the master hard drive…

Over Bloedow’s spare, poignant jangle, Charles’ breathy sarcasm addressing an unnamed patriarchal figure in Start in Light is absolutely withering:

This world could be bought and sold
So many people
Busy doing what they’re told
But the right stuff
Ain’t the right stuff
It’s just old

Rising from nebulous to bitingly anthemic, the album’s centerpiece is Philistine Jackknife, a spot-on portrait of “festering piehole’ Donald Trump and his “horrowshow that’s now livestreaming:”

Can we smoke him out
Tear him from the garish tower
Mercenaries standing by
Clocking in by the hour

Dispossessed is a contemplation of the the challenge to find any kind of stability in these precarious times. The most elegiac. apocalyptic number here is Household Gods, a horror-stricken gothic tableau, Charles intoning soberly about “Watching from a window like a shadow play/Down below, no one can tell that they’ve run away.”

With a searing Bloedow solo at the center, the album’s hardest-rocking track is Knights of the White Carnation, a spot-on critique of the neoliberal drift toward fascism:

A dark illumination
A murdering resurrection
Lords and Queens of the castle walls
Heirs of the great plantations
Hands that whipped black skin
Hold the keys of the private prisons

The album winds up with Time Capsule, a wistfully uneasy childhood reminiscence that brings to mind Bloedow’s collaborations with another extraordinary singer, Jenifer Jackson. Look for this album on the best of 2018 page at the end of the year.