New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Category: chamber pop

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 Coney Island Baby on Oct 26 at 10ish; cover is $12.

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.

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An Ominously Glimmering Free Download from Brian Carpenter & the Confessions

While the latest album by Brian Carpenter’s Ghost Train Orchestra is more blithe and cartoonish than their previous, more noir-inspired material, the trumpeter/multi-instrumentalist’s other project, Brian Carpenter & the Confessions haven’t lightened up any. Their show last fall at Drom on an amazing triplebill with New York’s most cinematic noir band, Big Lazy and gonzo soul band the Claudettes was one of the year’s best. They’ve also have a live Folkadelphia Sessions ep up at Bandcamp as a free download.

There are three ominous, slightly surreal tracks, perfect for Halloween. Guitarist Andrew Stern and violinist Jonathan Lamaster build sinisterly clanging, reverbtoned ambience to kick off the first one, Lazarus, Carpenter’s wintry voice intoning Old Testament gloom and doom over the steady backdrop of bassist Tony Leva and drummer Gavin McCarthy. The bandleader adds a gorgeously funereal, tremoloing Farfisa organ solo as well.

Falling From You is a bolero as Nick Cave might do it. The final cut is Far End of the World, a Tom Waitsian noir soul ballad, Carpenter’s spare, ominous guitar anchoring the faux-blithe vocals of Jen Kenneally and Georgia Young.

If you haven’t discovered the Folkadelphia Sessions, you can get pretty lost there. This vast series of live free download recordings isn’t limited to crunchy music, either: artists as diverse as Anais Mitchell, Devotchka and Marissa Nadler – who’s recorded two sessions – all have releases in the catalog.

A Strange, Innovative New Mixtape Album and a Williamsburg Show From Agnes Obel

Of the 21 tracks on Agnes Obel’s latest aptly titled album Late Night Tales – streaming at Bandcamp – only four of the songs are hers. But it’s not a covers album – it’s a cleverly assembled mixtape, often a very good one. Considering how many decades’ worth of material across about as wide a stylistic swath as you could imagine are represented here, segues aren’t the point. Obviously, the goth-tinged Danish multi-keyboardist/singer is going to be playing her own material at her gig tomorrow night, Sept 15 at Warsaw. Showtime is 8 PM; general admission is $20. If you’re going, be aware that there is no G train this weekend: the venue is about a five minute walk from the south exit (i.e. the one without the lines) at the Bedford Ave. L station.

To open the album, the shifting ominousness of Henry Mancini’s Evil Theme segues into the creepy arpeggios and vocalese of Moonbird, a 1971 instrumental by the Roger Webb Sound. Campy faux-tropicalia by Eden Ahbez quickly breaks the mood; the grim Lee Hazelwood western gothic track after that also hasn’t aged well.

Jamaican singer Nora Dean’s distantly menacing dub plate Ay Ay Ay Ay (Angle-Lala) is a welcome return to the darkness, echoed a bit later by Lena Platonos’ Bloody Shadows from a Distance. A loopily cinematic bass-and-narration miniature by Yello quickly gives way to the surreal 196os Brazilian renaissance choral psych-pop of Aleluia, by Quarteto Em Cy with the Tamba Trio

Ray Davies’ 2015 cover of his ex Chrissie Hynde’s I Go to Sleep is almost as surreal, awash in an echoey chamber pop arrangement. The lingering unease of the fifth movement from Alfred Schnittke’s Piano Quintet, (uncredited, but the piano sounds like Obel) connects to her first original here, Stretch Your Eyes and its rainy-day Dead Can Dance ambience. 

An otherworldly folk melody sung by the Bulgarian State Radio & Television Female Choir bridges to Obel’s second number, Glemmer Du and its twistedly twinkling music-box piano. Her third composition, Bee Dance is a ghostly waltzing instrumental for strings and piano.

The stark freak-folk of Sibylle Baier’s The End, from 2006, leads into Michelle Gurevich’s similarly spare, sarcastic Party Girl, from a year later. The mix shifts back to noir with Can’s wintry, swooshy instrumental Oscura Primavera, followed by indie classical composer David Lang’s minimalist choral fugue I Lie, performed by the Torino Vocalensemble (uncredited). Arguably the highlight of the whole mix is a live 1964 concert recording of Nina Simone singing an a-cappella version of her excoriating, ferociously relevant ode to black female beauty, Images. Obel’s emphatic, minimalist dreamscape setting of Inger Christensen’s Poem About Death concludes this strange and unsettling mix.

One minor issue with the album is that the times listed for every single track on the Bandcamp page are completely wrong. Don’t be surprised when what’s ostensibly six minutes worth of Obel suddenly cuts off at the 1:45 mark.

A Rapturous, Relevant, Thoughtful Show by Eclectic Violinist Concetta Abbate

Saturday night at Pete’s Candy Store, violinist Concetta Abbate held the crowd silent through a beguiling, sometimes entrancing, sometimes sprightly set of original vocal and instrumental numbers, in a duo set with similarly nuanced drummer Ben Engel. Abbate is your typical in-demand string player: one day she’ll be playing Haydn, the next psychedelic Mayan folk with Inti & the Moon, or with Rose Thomas Bannister’s haunting art-rock band.

Abbate’s own material defies categorization. It’s elegant, minutely detailed and rarely ends up where it began. Shifting between pensive ambience, graceful baroque-tinged riffs and gently churning pizzicato phrases, she made all those stylistic leaps and bounds look easy. Most of her songs are under three minutes long, so she came up with several diptychs and triptychs.

A mini-suite from her most recent studio album Falling in Time gave her a launching pad from which to sail to the top of her vocal register – for someone who sings as calmly and often quietly as she does, she has enormous range. The best of the originals might have been a lilting, rather anthemic new one, contemplating how the Brooklyn-Queens border is a graveyard – literally – and allusively referencing the blitzkrieg of gentrification that’s extending that situation, metaphorically at least.

The lone cover in her set was a muted, straightforward chamber-pop arrangement of the Smiths’  There Is a Light That Never Goes Out, arguably even more cruelly bittersweet than the original since Abbate didn’t go over the top with her vocals, letting the lyrics’ angst and longing speak for themselves. Engel’s masterfully suspenseful drumming grounded the music’s upper registers while adding considerable suspense. Whether playing with brushes or mallets, from rustling whispers to spot-on imitations of Arabic drums – boomy daf and gently popping dumbek – he was always in one good place or another.

Abbate’s next gig is at the Park Church Coop at 129 Russell St. in Greenpoint on Sept 9 at 2 PM, joining an chamber ensemble for a killer program of her own work plus material by women composers Missy Mazzoli, Whitney George, Anna Bon and Kate Amrine. There’s no G train this weekend, so you’ll have to take the L to Bedford and walk. Cover is $10 and includes snacks. Abbate is also playing solo at the small room at the Rockwood on Sept 30 at 3 (three) PM.

The Bryant Park Accordion Festival: Like a Free, Weekly Midtown Golden Fest

The Bryant Park accordion festival is like a free Midtown version of Golden Fest – except without the food. It could also be said that Golden Fest is a two-night, Brooklyn version of the Bryant Park festival, without the blankets and the lawn chairs. Either way, each is a bucket-list experience for New Yorkers. You’ll have to wait til next January 12-13 for Golden Fest 2019, but starting at 5:30 PM every Wednesday through Sept 12, you can see pretty much every global style of accordion music in Bryant Park. The grand finale is on Friday the 14th starting a half hour earlier.

While Golden Fest is a marathon feast that lasts into the wee hours, you can pop into Bryant Park after work and hang out for however long you want. Five different performers play short sets starting on the half hour at five different stations throughout the park until 7:30. Golden Fest is this country’s big celebration of music from across the Balkans and to some extent, the Middle East. While styles from those parts of the world are also part of the Bryant Park festival, so far there’s been a lot of music from south of the border.

It was fun to stop in by a couple of weeks ago to catch a set by Erica Mancini, who pretty much embodies what the festival is all about, considering how vast her stylistic range is. Last year she did blues and swing; her show last week was a slinky mix of cumbia, tango and a bolero. Playing both instrumentals and sad ballads and and singing in nuanced, plaintively modulated Spanish, she was backed by a sensationally good mandolinist who ran through a pedalboard for icy, watery textures, trippy delays and gritty noise loops.It was as if Chicha Libre got back together…with an even better singer out front.

Last week’s show was on the hottest day of the year. That Rachelle Garniez managed to get through four sets without sitting down, with that big box strapped to her back, was impressive enough. That she sang as soaringly and powerfully as she ever has, in that heat, was even more so. She’s probably the best songwriter of the past twenty years, bar none – and that’s not meant as a dis to Steve Wynn, or Hannah Fairchild, or Aimee Mann. Methodically and even energetically, Garniez made her way through Tourmaline, a wistful yet forcefully determined individualist’s waltz, then worked her way up from a suspenseful, atmospheric intro into the strutting, coy hokum blues innuendos of Medicine Man.

She flipped the script on Aesop by reimagining the tale of the ant and the grasshopper in a fairer world where a bon vivant shouldn’t have to choose antlike drudgery to survive. She also treated the crowd on the terrace on the Sixth Avenue side to a deadpan verse or two of the Stones’ Paint It Black – which in its own surreal way was just as twistedly fun as the Avengers’ cover – and also the lilting, pre-apocalyptic tropicalia of Silly Me, from her 2000 album Crazy Blood.

And playing button accordion, fiery Venezuelan Harold Rodriguez really worked up a sweat, backed by supple bass and percussion in a literally volcanic set of rapidfire cumbias, a merengue tune and a handful of vallenato standards that got the expat crew singing along. He’s at Barbes with the group on Sept 17 at 9:30 PM

This week’s installment of the festival, on Sept 5 starting at 5:30 PM features singer Eva Salina and accordionist Peter Stan playing haunting Romany ballads,  Cordeone doing Portuguese fado laments, bandoneonist Laura Vilche playing tango, and Romany swing accordionist Albert Behar, among many others.

An Incendiary Concert at a Legendary Studio Immortalized on the BC 35 Album

Martin Bisi is a legend of the New York underground  – and he’s hardly a stranger in many other worlds as well. As a young engineer in 1983, he vaulted to prominence by winning a Grammy for his work on Herbie Hancock’s hit Rockit, which would go on to be sampled by thousands of hip-hop acts over the decades. The vast list of acts Bisi has worked with at his legendary Gowanus digs BC Studios runs from Sonic Youth  to John Zorn to the Dresden Dolls. 

His new album BC 35 – streaming at Bandcamp – was recorded in front of a live audience there over the course of a marathon weekend in January of 2016, a historic event very enthusiastically reviewed here. True to form, Bisi also recorded it and played with many of the groups on the bill, in celebration of the studio’s 35th anniversary. Much as he’s as distinctive and darkly erudite a guitarist as he is a producer, he’s somewhere in the mix here on three tracks: characteristically, he isn’t being ostentatious. His latest gig is at El Cortez on Sept 1 at around 8 on a killer triplebill, in between the perennially sick, twisted noiserock of the Sediment Club and the headliners, no wave sax legends James Chance & the Contortions. Cover is $20.

The order of the tracks leaps back and forth between the Saturday and Sunday sessions. The album’s most notable cut is Details of the Madness, the first recording and live performance by 80s noiserock legends Live Skull (who call themselves New Old Skull here) since 1998. guitarist Mark C, bassist Marnie Greenholz Jaffe and drummer Rich Hutchins pick up like they never left off, enigmatically catchy, icy guitar multitracks over a relentless fuzztone swing that slows with an ominous nod to Joy Division.

Some of these tracks are improvisations, including the album’s opening number, Nowhere Near the Rainbow. Original Sonic Youth drummer Bob Bert gives Parlor Walls guitarist Alyse Lamb, Skeleton Boy from Woman and Lubricated Goat’s Stu Spasm a slinky pulse for sputters and squall punctuated by the occasional anthemic goth riff. SYNESTHESIA!  – an Alice Donut reunion, more or less – is similar but much dirtier. Denton’s Dive – with Hutchins, Skeleton Boy, Dave W, Phil Puleo and Ivan Up – is practically ten minutes of sludgecore, dissociative reverbtoned noise and swaying atrocity exhibition atmosphere.

Here’s how this blog described the Sunday session jam What a Jerk: “Algis Kisys of Swans jousted with ex-Cop Shoot Cop bassist Jack Natz and drummer Jim Coleman for a ferocious blast through a hornet’s nest of needle-pinning fuzztones and booming low-register chords.” What’s here is a judicious edit – if noiserock jams can be judiciously edited, Bisi’s definitely the man for the job. After that, Tidal Channel’s no wave synth-and-spoken-word piece Humash Wealth Management, Inc. keeps the assault going full force.

JG Thirlwell’s characteristically creepy, southwestern gothic overture Downhill features Insect Ark’s Dana Schechter on bass and violinist Laura Ortman leading a full string section. It is probably less memorable for being this blog’s owner’s most recent appearance on album, as part of the impromptu “BC Radiophonic Choir.”

The lineup on The Animals Speak Truth includes Barbez’s Dan Kaufman on guitar, Botanica’s Paul Wallfisch on organ and keys and the Dresden Dolls’ Brian Viglione on drums, maintaining the lingering lysergic menace in a vamping instrumental that picks up to a grimly tumbling, clustering pace.

Looking back to the weekend reportage again: “Susu guitarist Andrea Havis and drummer Oliver Rivera Drew (who made a tight rhythm section with baritone guitarist Diego Ferri, both of whom play in Bisi’s European touring band) backed Arrow’s soaring frontwoman Jeannie Fry through a swirl of post-MBV maelstrom sonics and wary, moodily crescendoing postpunk jangle.“ That’s His Word Against Mine, by JADO.

White Hills’ echoey End of the Line offers contrast as well as the weekend’s lone reference point to Brian Eno, BC Studios’ co-founder. Bolstered by Wallfisch and Viglione, noir singer/guitarist Ajda the Turkish Queen’s toweringly gorgeous, Lynchian waltz Take This Ride is the strongest track here. The album concludes with a noisy, hypnotically pulsing jam by Cinema Cinema plus David Lackner and Mikel Dos Santos, and more Tidal Channel assault. Warts and all, you’ll see this on the best albums of 2018 page at the end of the year, a magical piece of history. What a treat it was to be witness to most of it.

The Blue Dahlia Bring Their Catchy, Quirky, Wildly Multistylstic Mashups to Barbes

Dahlia Dumont sings fluently in both French and English. As you might expect from a ukulele player, she has a quirky sense of humor. She also writes very eclectically, from South American and Caribbean styles to Americana, with frequent detours into Balkan and Romany sounds. Her gently melismatic vocals have tinges of both Americana as well as reggae and corporate urban pop. She honed her chops as a bandleader playing over crowds of drunks in dives all over Brooklyn…and she has a completely separate band in France playing her repertoire.

Fast forward to 2018: she’s plugged into the New York parks summer concert circuit, and she has a new album, La Tradition Americane, streaming at her music page. And she’s sticking with elite venues now: she and her band the Blue Dahlia will be at Barbes this Saturday night, Aug 11 at 8 PM. Similarly eclectic jazz pianist Joel Forrester opens the night solo at 6; psychedelic cumbia band Cumbiagra (with whom she shares accordion wizard George Saenz) play after at 10.

The album opens with the title track, a coyly modulating mashup of tango and ska, spiced with Zoe Aqua’s stark Romany violin, as well as horns and a brief, soulful Giovanni Hector trombone solo. Is the closing mantra “la belle de Louisianna” or “la bête de Louisianne?”

The band does two radically different arrangements of I See Trees Differently, first as oldtime country ballad and then as straight-up roots reggae. They follow that with the sardonic reggae tune Mai Tai, Diego Cebollero’s bluesy electric guitar paired against rustic fiddle and accordion.

Uneasy washes of accordion open Wake Me Up, then Yoshiki Yamada’s chugging reggae bassline kicks in along with the rest of the band’s moody, klezmer-inflected lushness. Canal Saint Martin is an elegant Cajun waltz; Dumont stays in that tempo for Reasonable and its bluesy, piano-fueled Tom Waits-ish milieu.

Karina Colis’ caffeinated drumming propels Blah Blah, which shifts in a split-second back and forth between new wave and ska. Then the band hit a balmy reggae groove, awash in the strings of Aqua and cellist Nelly Rocha before Jackie Coleman’s muted trumpet solos over Dumont’s exasperated chronicle of social media-era overkill.

The most straight-up French chanson number here is La Fontaine, a moody, swaying tune with soulful, lowlit clarinet. Dumont shifts to soca for Your Love, which grows much more brooding as the strings swell and spiral. It makes a good setup for the album’s best cut, the hauntingly Balkan-inflected, string-driven Influence. Then the band go back to breezy reggae for Plantation and close with Le Rêve, a jaunty reggae bounce. There’s literally something for everyone here.

The All-Female NYChillharmonic Raises the Bar For Epic Big Band Grandeur

Finding twenty-two musicians capable of doing justice to singer/keyboardist Sara McDonald’s kinetic, stormy, intricately epic compositions is an achievement all by itself. Finding a night when they’re all available for a show in Gowanus raises that challenge exponentially. Now imagine leading that band on a broken foot.

That’s what McDonald had to contend with fronting her ensemble the NYChillharmonic back in May at Littlefield. Visibly in pain and steaming that she had to be helped onstage, she rallied and transcended the situation, singing with greater purr and wail than ever as the music rose and fell and turned kaleidoscopically behind her. Adrenaline can do that to you. She’s presumably in better shape now, and will be leading the group at Brooklyn’s best-sounding venue, National Sawdust, on Aug 2 at 7 PM. Advance tix are $20.

Unlike typical big band jazz, this unit is not a vehicle for long solos. Throughout the night, those moments tended to be cameos, an instrumentalist backed by just the rhythm section – Madgalena Abrego’s incisive guitar, Danae Greenfield’s spare piano, Adi Meyerson’s spring-loaded bass and Mareike Weining’s tersely inventive drumming. While much of the rhythm followed a slinky, swaying 4/4, sudden flares would erupt when least expected, sending the tempo and often the melody every which way. Occasionally these would take the form of clever, false endings McDonald loves so much.

The Radiohead influence that was so pervasive in McDonald’s earlier work is still there, intricately voiced, looping phrases and permutations filtering through every section of the orchestra. Yet throughout the set, from the tight sunburst pulses of Surface Tension through the mighty, cinematic closing number, Easy Comes the Ghost, the harmonies remained vastly more translucent than opaque. McDonald reached back for extra power in the gusting, crescendoing Blumen, in contrast with the smoldering lustre that peppered To Covet a Quiet Mind. With jazz inventiveness and spontaneity but also rock drive and raw power, McDonald’s music is its own genre.

McDonald didn’t address the issue that this was an all-female edition of the band until late in the set. “They’re great musicians,” she said, nonchalant and succinct, and left it at that. The lineup was a mix of established artists – notably Jenny Hill on tenor sax, Rachel Therrien on trumpet and Kaila Vandever on trombone – and rising star talent. The rest of the group, clearly amped to be playing this material, included Alden Hellmuth and Erena Terakubo  on alto sax, Emily Pecoraro on tenor and Mercedes Beckman on baritone with Leah Garber, Rebecca Steinberg and Kathleen Doran on trumpets; Nicole Connelly and Erin Reifler on trombones; Gina Benalcazar on bass trombone; and a string quartet comprising violinists Audrey Hayes and Kiho Yutaka, violist Dora Kim and cellist Jillian Blythe.

And a big shout-out to the sound guy. The latest Littlefield space is nothing like the old one: it’s a barewalled rock club, about the same size as the Footlight. Miking so many instruments with highs bouncing all over the place was a daunting task to say the least. That the guy managed to give the group as much clarity as he did was impressive all by itself, let alone without all sorts of nasty feedback. In the pristine sonics at National Sawdust next Thursday that won’t be an issue.

A Deliciously Psychedelic Album and a Saturday Night Barbes Show by One of New York’s Best Bands

Lately Bombay Rickey are calling themselves “operatic surf noir.” What’s coolest about that observation is that this irrepressible, individualistic group realize just how dark a lot of surf rock is – and how much grand guignol there is in opera. In reality, the only real western opera references in their music are channeled via frontwoman/accordionist/sitarist Kamala Sankaram’s spectacular, practically five-octave vocals. Otherwise the group transcend their origins as a Yma Sumac cover band, mashing up cumbia, Bollywood, spaghetti western, brassy Nancy Sinatra Vegas noir and even classical ragas into a wildly psychedelic, danceable vindaloo. Their new album Electric Bhairavi is streaming at Bandcamp, and they’re headlining their usual haunt, Barbes, this Saturday night at 10 PM.

The album title refers to the Indian goddess: Bhairavi is Lord Shiva’s squeeze, an eastern counterpart of sorts to Hera in Greek mythology. While the band can jam like crazy in concert, the new album is surprisingly more terse. The first track is a wildly psychedelic, Bollywoodized reinvention of the old Yma Sumac hit Virgenes del Sol, Sankaram vocalizing with tongue-in-cheek, pointillistic, Verdi-ish flair over Drew Fleming’s spiky guitar, alto saxophonist Jeff Hudgins adding a luscious solo packed with otherworldly microtones and chromatics.

The group kick off Frantic with a scream: from there, they veer from Fleming’s growling guitar against Sankaram’s flitting accordion, down to a pulsing, insectile, distangly bhangra-tinged interlude where drummer Brian Adler gets his hardware flickering, Hudgins’ sax channeling a neon-crazed moth. Kohraa, one of the band’s catchiest and most wickedly serpentine live numbers, has a slinky guaguanco beat and an uneasy interweave of surf guitar, accordion and sax. Sankaram blends allure and nuance in this beachy reminiscence.

Bhonkers – a typical title for this band – leaps between a wistfully opaque, accordion-fueled raga theme and tinges of sunbaked border rock. Likewise, Megalodon – saluting a sea monster who’s been extinct for forty thousand years – alternates between lush majesty and surf drive, Adler and bassist Gil Smuskowitz’s pulsing, syncopated riff signaling the charge.

Gopher is classic Bombay Rickey, a sly mashup of mambo, psychedelic cumbia and Bollywood. Sankaram’s droll Betty Boop accents bring to mind another  brilliant New York singer, Rachelle Garniez, in similarly sardonic mode, Hudgins and Fleming both kicking in with bristling solos. LIkewise, with Sa-4-5, they make dramatic raga-rock out of a spine-tingling, well-known Indian carnatic vocal riff.

Meri Aakhon Mein Ek Sapna Hai brings a purloined Meters strut back full circle from Bollywood: this band can really jam out the funk when they want, Hudgins pulling out all the microtonal stops as he weaves around, Sankaram reaching back for extra power in her vocalese solo during a long, hypnotic interlude over Adler’s tabla. 

The album’s most brooding track, Cowboy & Indian is a reference to band heritage – Fleming is a native Texan while the California-born Sankaram’s background is Indian. It’s an unexpectedly elegaic southwestern gothic ballad: “Midnight comes when you least expect it, but springtime will never come again,” the two harmonize. 

They wind up the record with the towering, epic raga-rock title track, rising from Sankaram’s mystical sitar intro to a mighty, guitar-fueled sway. Like the group’s previous release, Cinefonia – rated best debut album of 2014 here – this one will end up on the list of 2018’s best albums at the end of the year

A Shatteringly Relevant New Suite Casts a Cold Eye on Surveillance State Terror

“The last refuge of privacy,” is how the central object in The Secret Diary of Nora Plain was described by the song cycle’s lyricist, Lucky Fonz III at National Sawdust this past weekend. In their US debut, premiering this haunting, labyrinthine yet often shatteringly direct suite to a sold-out audience, Dutch ensemble the Ragazze Quartet were bolstered by the eclectic beats of percussionist Remco Menting.

In front of the ensemble, charismatic singer Nora Fischer channeled the increasing terror of being caught in the spycams’ deadly web, whether calm and stoic, shivering on the floor or twitching like a marionette, Ian Curtis-style.  “Let bygones be bygones,” she encouraged coolly during one of the early songs, hope against hope. At that point it wasn’t clear just what this story’s everywoman had done – if anything – to catch Big Brother’s merciless eye, a conclusion that the suite left hanging. That only raised the suspense, underscoring how anyone with an identifiable cellphone or a Facebook page  – or without one, conceivably – could be caught in the trap.

Fischer is force of nature. At her quietest, she brought a plaintive, sometimes prayerful quality to the narrative; at her loudest, she belted with a gale-force wail worthy of Aretha. Likewise, the quintet of musicians began with an atmospheric whisper and rose in a series of waves, through as many different styles as a string quartet augmented by a drummer with a full kit plus vibraphone could possibly play.

The stage direction was spare yet tightly focused on an ever-encroaching menace, pushing Nora further and further toward the edge. There were moments when the quartet drew ominously closer and closer to her; other times, they fell in line as good soldiers in a police state are required to. Menting took a couple of turns behind a small keyboard during quieter, more atmospheric interludes. Likewise, violinists Rosa Arnold and Jeanita Vriens shifted to Menting’s vibraphone and bowed icy, airy textures at a couple of the suite’s most whispery ebbs.

The songs, with music by Morris Kliphuis, rose and fell, akin to Elvis Costello’s Juliet Letters with music by Philip Glass and Caroline Shaw and played by Rasputina, perhaps. Cellist Rebecca Wise propelled those shifts with stark, raw washes along with elegantly incisive pizzicato; violist Annemijn Bergkotte was a spare, striking presence in both the low and higher registers as well. Stylistically, the segments ran the gamut from hypnotically circling, kinetic chamber rock – often spiced with allusively macabre, Glass-ine phrases – to an emphatic detour into funk, murky mood pieces, and a couple of rises to sheer terror, most grippingly in Rat in My Room. Whether that rat was the four-legged or two-legged kind was left to the audience to figure out.

Was Fischer’s final exit what it seemed on the surface, a coyly triumphant slip out the side door? Or was she going elsewhere? Readers of Lois Lowry‘s dystopic classic The Giver will get that reference. Anyone concerned with the perilous state of civil liberties should see this hauntingly enigmatic, rivetingly disturbing, potently relevant work.