New York Music Daily

Love's the Only Engine of Survival

Category: chamber pop

Lurid, Lowlit, Slyly Reinvented Lounge Sounds From the Tiki Collective

Why did David Lynch take the title of his iconic second film from a lounge song? Because lounge jazz is creepy, and seedy, and phantasmagorical. Not everything on the Tiki Collective’s 2018 debut album Muse – streaming at Spotify – is creepy. In fact, some of the Toronto crew’s reinventions of pop hits are funny as hell, in a sarcastic Richard Cheese vein. But there’s sinister stuff here that’s perfect for any Halloween party playlist you have planned for this year.

The group chose a different vocalist for each song. There are subtle, ominous touches – a reverb guitar riff from Eric St-Lauren, a ripple of Michael Davidson’s vibraphone – in I’ve Never Left Your Arms, sung by Genevieve Marentette. With its moody klezmer overtones, It’s a good choice to open the record.

Did you know that Harlem Nocturne and Mood Indigo had words? Joanna Majoko and Tyra Juta do, and they sing them. Neither version is up to Ellington level…or the Ventures for that matter. The first of the really funny numbers is the Fleetwood Mac hit Hypnotized, reinvented as a deadpan, brooding soul song with Heather Luckhart and the Willows out front.

The Willows return with Melissa Lauren for a Sade-ized version of Don’t Fear the Reaper, which is also funny, though not quite as ridiculously surreal as Bobtown’s bluegrass cover. Speaking of Sade, guest singer Paget reaches for dreamy ambience in a slow, trip-hop influenced take of The Sweetest Taboo: the original vocalist would do just as well with these guys behind her.

The reliably excellent Lily Frost’s airy delivery matches the band’s spare Asian inflections in Mountain High, Valley Low. Irene Torres sings a muted, remarkable southwestern gothic remake of the old cheeseball mambo Quizas Quizas Quizas. Likewise, Chelsea Bridge gets the album’s most menacingly lingering intro before singer Mingjia Chen’s vocalese takes over.

There are two originals on the album. Avery Raquel sings the fluttering, bossa-tinged Dreaming, while Denielle Bassels closes the record with The Wanderer, a Ricky Nelson-style pop song. Also included are pretty straight-up covers of All Too Soon and I’ll Be Seeing You, sung by Jocelyn Barth and Jessica LaLonde, respectively.

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.

Sarah Aroeste Brings a Vanished Balkan Hub of Sephardic Culture Back to Life

Ladino singer Sarah Aroeste‘s cousin Rachel Nahmias survived the Holocaust, smuggled across the border from Macedonia to Albania in the trunk of a car. A Muslim family there hid her from the Nazis for the duration of the war. At 103, she’s still with us.

Her family wasn’t so lucky. After the Nazis took them off to Treblinka, a neighbor pulled the mezuzah (a religious home-sweet-home totem) off the door of their home, planning on giving it back to them when they were liberated. Along with more than seven thousand, mostly Sephardic Macedonian Jews, they never made it back. At times like this we need to remember the Holocaust. Evil was in full bloom then, and it’s in full bloom now: ask an Israeli or an Australian.

Aroeste’s latest album Monastir -streaming at Bandcamp – celebrates the rich history of the Macedonian city now known as Bitola, where her ancestors had roots before leaving for the US in 1913. There’s a small army of Israeli and Macedonian musicians on this, playing a mix of Sephardic and Macedonian folk songs and originals.

Aroeste sings the opening track, a hypnotic, mantra-like anthem celebrating a newborn’s arrival, with a restrained joy, Yonnie Dror getting his shofar to channel dusky digeridoo lows. Vevki Amedov’s magically microtonal Balkan clarinet joins with an animated choir in the irrepressibly jaunty Od Bitola Pojdov (Bitola Girls). Crooner Yehoram Gaon sings an elegantly bolero-flavored take of the Ladino lost-love ballad Jo La Keria over producer Shai Bachar’s elegant piano and Dan Ben Lior’s acoustic guitar.

Odelia Dahan Kehila and Gilan Shahaf join voices on a gorgeous, bittersweetly undulating new Hebrew take of the popular Balkan folk song Jovanke, Jovanke, reinvented as a glittering piano-based ballad. Sefedin Bajramov takes over the mic on Edno Vreme Si Bev Ergen, a lilting, carefree Macedonian folk tune about a guy on the prowl who meets a cute Jewish girl – and wants to be Fyedka to her Chava.

A Bitola children’s choir sing Estreja Mara, a popular post-WWII tribute to a freedom fighter killed by the Nazis at 21. Macedonian opera star Helena Susha sings En Frente de Mi Te Tengo, a brass-fueled ranchera-style ballad.

One of the album’s most dramatic, flamenco-tinged numbers is Aroeste’s original version of Espinelo, a medieval tale of an infant thrown into the ocean as a newborn since he was one of a pair of twins, considered at the time to be bad luck. He survives and goes on to Balkan fame. Baglama player Shay Hamani and kanun player Yael Lavie enhance the brooding Middle Eastern ambience.

The album’s final two tracks pay homage to Aroeste’s ancestral city. She leads a rousing, plaintive choir over an intricate web of acoustic guitars in an original, Mi Monastir, then soars over a bouncy backdrop in Bitola, Moj Roden Kraj, an early 50s hit for Macedonian folk-pop singer Ajri Demirovski. This an all-too-rare work of musicological sleuthing that’s just as fun to listen to as it is politically important.

Sparely Powerful, Lyrical Catalan Songcraft From Singer Lia Sampai

One of the most stunningly direct, potently lyrical albums of the year is Lia Sampai’s latest release Amagatalls de Llum (rough unpoetic translation from Catalan: Hidden in Plain Sight), streaming at youtube. Sampai sings with a disarmingly intimate, nuanced delivery and writes striking, imagistic lyrics, with a fearless political sensibility. Her images can be charming and quirky one second and venomous the next. While there’s a definite flamenco influence in her music, there are also elements of Portuguese fado, pan-Mediterranean balladry, art-rock and tinges of jazz, nimbly negotiated by acoustic guitarist Adrià Pagès. Some of the songs are simply guitar and vocals, others feature terse strings in places.

She opens with La Caixeta (The Box), a stately, romantic waltz that’s part fado, part flamenco and part vintage Parisian chanson. The doll imagery in the sparse, angst-fueled second track, La Nina comes across as more of a reflection on reconnecting with an inner conscience than with an inner child, Lia Manchón’s violin and Ester Trilla’s cello adding pensive ambience.

La Nit del Foc (Night of Fire) is a coy mashup of a dramatic Spanish waltz and a Dylanesque talking blues. Sampai follows a suspenseful trail of eerie, allusive images, up to a duende-fueled peak in Pinyols de Gel (Hailstorm), Pagès’ attack growing more unhinged along with her.

The shapeshifting political broadside Una Llum (A Light) is a real stunner, a slap upside the head of a petty tyrant whose insatiable desire for control backfires and ignites a revolution. Sampai wrote this in 2019, but it has infinite more resonance in the year where the World Economic Forum terrorists are throwing everything they have at us to try to keep their global takeover attempt from going off the rails.

Iris is a delicately waltzing, enigmatic, metaphorically loaded narrative about a dancer (or maybe a stripper). Weeping willow metaphors take centerstage in the stark, grim Salze Vell:

Que dins de tant de vent lo plor és silenci,
Com una paraula que interdiu algú.
I les fulles se revolten encriptades
D’una música que sols entenem junts
Plorem per amunt!
Plorem per amunt!
Alcem un crit de pena i llibertat

[rough translation]

A scream drowned by the wind
Like a forbidden word
And the leaves spin, encrypted
With a music that only we understand
Let’s scream it!
Let’s scream it!
Scream from sadness, for freedom

The catchy, lilting Joc de Miralls (Game of Mirrors) seems to an examination of how recognizing your shadow in someone else can be liberating, if a little scary.

Pagès’ starry electric guitar rings out over Emili Bosch’s synth in Astronautes, a playful outer-space love song. Sampai winds up the album with the understatedly haunting L’Endemà (The Day After), the strings lush and moody as Gerard Morató’s piano mingles with Lluís Pérez-Villegas’ glockenspiel. Sampai’s Christmas party narrative is joyous and not a little defiant, but there’s a sinister undercurrent. What a perfect song for a year when dictators are trying to tell us how many people we can invite to our private holiday celebrations.

Play For Today 9/7/21

Been awhile since there’s been a playlist on this page, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of entertaining singles floating around. Here’s a fun and informative self-guided mix: the links in the song titles will take you to each one.

The Brooklyn Boogaloo Blowout are best known for their latin soul jams, but they’re a lot more eclectic than their name implies. The most electrifying song on their live album is Sheba, an Ethiopiques-tinged surf song

Louisiana rocker Rod Gator‘s Wanna Go for a Ride is the Clash’s version of Brand New Cadillac, as the Legendary Shack Shakers might have done it, darker and grittier with a guitar solo to match

Acoustic Syndicate‘s cover of the Grateful Dead classic Bertha has a tightness and a snarl that the original band sometimes let slip away. “Test me test me test me test me, why don’t you arrest me?” What a theme the lockdown era!

It makes a good segue with one you probably know, RC the Rapper‘s Just Say No, one of the big boombox hits from this summer’s protests here in the US. “It isn’t a theory if it keeps coming true.”

The smooth reggae grooves of Micah Lee’s No Lockdowns keep the inspiration flowing (thanks to the fearless folks at Texans For Vaccine Choice for this one).

The breathing metaphors and carefree sounds of children laughing on the playground in Alma’s Sips of Oxygen are a much subtler kind of commentary: “Someone in the doorway, hope they’re not afraid of them.”

Marianne Dissard and Raphael Mann’s delicate chamber pop duet reinvention of Townes Van Zandt’s If I Needed You is the great lost track from Nico’s Chelsea Girl album….with a woman who can hit the notes on the mic.

Let’s end this with something equally artful and poignant: Danny Wilkerson‘s Endless Haze, the best and least Beatlesque song on the new reissue of his very Fab Four-influenced 2018 solo debut album. The stark haggardness of the Boston Symphony Strings back his playfully lyrical but wounded chronicle of losing a battle with the bottle.

Individualistic, Energetic, Anthemically Genre-Defying Songs From Singer Elena Mîndru

Elena Mîndru writes imaginative, individualistic, elegant songs that bridge the worlds of art-rock, jazz and Finnish folk music. She sings in solid, expressive English, with an understated power from the lows to the highs, has a socially aware worldview and an inspired, versatile band. Her new album Hope is streaming at Bandcamp.

She opens the album with the title track, a lithely bouncy tale of eco-disaster, narrowly averted. As Mîndru sees it, people are waking up, hopefully in time to pull the world back from the brink of self-combustion. Violinist Adam Bałdych shifts from spiky funk to sinuous, leaping phrases and back, handing off to pianist Tuomas J. Turunen over the increasingly bustling rhythm from bassist Oskari Siirtola and drummer Anssi Tirkkonen

Mîndru doesn’t leave the global warming warnings there. In Hay Moon, she builds a metaphorically-charged storm tableau as the band rise to a big art-rock crescendo, Bałdych’s multitracked pizzicato adding a bucolic energy, up to a big flurrying coda.

Foliage begins as a vivid portrait of light-dappled leaves via piano and pizzicato violin. Then Mîndru makes it into a dramatic, optimistic waltz spiked with bracing violin and vocalese. Run Away brings to mind a famous minor-key Police hit from the 80s, followed by Blackberry, a moody miniature blending resonant bass and violin with Mîndru’s wordless vocals.

She goes back to waltz territory, more minimalistically, with Blueberry, a soaring, plaintively bowed cello bass solo at the center. Lost Boys has an altered clave rhythm and a crisply bounding piano melody, Mîndru contemplating how to create a movement with genuine critical mass. A prime question for us these days, right?

She follows Luca, a rhythmically shapeshifting portrait of childhood wonder, with an attempt to elevate the Police’s Walking on the Moon to something above what it was: ok, Mîndru’s goofy approach beats the original. There’s also a sprightly, dynamic bonus track, Between a Smile and a Tear, contrasting Mîndru’s purist jazz scatting with Bałdych’s most sizzling solo here.

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.

Low-Key, Subtle, Inventive Jazz and Parlor Pop From Singer/Pianist Aimee Nolte

Aimee Nolte is best known for her extremely popular youtube jazz piano instructional videos. To her further credit, one of her most interesting videos is on how to play rock piano, a rare art to be sure. After all, you don’t want to clutter a rock song with fussy harmonies: Nolte shows you how.

As an artist herself, Nolte has a clear, direct, uncluttered voice and a fondness for inventive, counterintuitive arrangements. Her album Looking for the Answers is streaming at Spotify. It’s a mix of low-key originals and jazz standards. Nolte is all about subtlety: there’s nothing here that’s going to blow you away, but there are all sorts of clever touches. As a vocalist, she really excels at ballads; as a pianist, she plays with classically-influenced lyricism and remarkable terseness: this music is on the quiet side, but there’s nothing loungey about it. 

The balmy woodwind arrangement that opens the album’s first song, The Loveliest Girl, matches Nolte’s calm, warmly unadorned delivery. As the aphoristic narrative about a sunbeam finding its raison d’etre gathers steam, Mike Scott’s gently fingerpicked acoustic guitar enters the picture, followed by bassist Bruce Lett and drummer James Yoshizawa.

There’s a hint of the South in Nolte’s voice and a little Brazil in the album’s title track, a syncopated swing shuffle, Scott’s guitar intermingled within the bandleader’s bright, steady piano. Scott’s long solo really nails that same matter-of-fact, lyrically ratcheting drive.

A samba titled Falling Snow might sound bizarre, but it works as a muted backdrop for Nolte’s tender vocals and some nimbly interwoven guitar/piano exchanges. She sings with a bittersweet resonance throughout This One Hurts, a pensive but catchy solo lament.

Then she picks up the pace with the salsa party anthem I Gotta Get, Lett’s bass prowling around deviously. The plush woodwinds return in Save Me One Last Time, the album’s best and most haunting track, a wounded breakup tale told from the point of view of the instigator.

Nolte recalls Ella Fitzgerald in her stripped-down bass-and-vocal take of Bye Bye Blackbird with a lot of carefree scatting. Her piano follows a mutedly exploratory tangent in a trio version of All Too Soon over Scott’s steady chords.

So In Love is an understatedly joyous return to samba jazz, followed by You Should’ve, a 70s-style Nashville country-pop ballad recast as grey-sky art-song. Nolte closes the record with For a While, a brief, lyrical solo piano ballad.

Lush, Majestic, Angst-Fueled Orchestral Rock Tunesmithing From Dot Allison

Songwriter Dot Allison opens her new album Heart Shaped Scars – streaming at Bandcamp – with the title track, a Britfolk-tinged tale of abandonment, starry fingerpicked guitar and spare piano over increasingly lush strings, her airy voice reaching for the rafters. It sets the stage for the rest of the record. Allison has a thing for ghosts and metaphorically loaded nature imagery. She likes to record a central vocal track and then layer another one way up in the stratosphere: Lisa Hannigan and Susanne Sundfor‘s more lavish, folk-inspired material comes to mind.

“Listen to what this corridor said,” Allison encourages in The Haunted, a tale of metaphorically loaded ghostly presences over a similar, slightly less symphonically lavish backdrop. Icy raindrop piano flickers above the strummy acoustic guitar of Constellations, a surreal mashup of sweeping chamber pop with tinges of hip-hop, a vibe she reprises with even more imaginative textures later in Cue the Tears..

She reaches for a breathier, more mystical delivery in the circling, mantra-like Can You Hear Nature Sing: “Can you hear through her tears, a myriad of melodies?” Allison asks. The angst hits fever pitch in Ghost Orchid. a stately, anthemic art-rock ballad spiced with some uneasy close harmonies: “We melt into the sun,” is the last line. Allison deserves a lot of credit for resisting the urge to turn this into full-blown High Romantic cliche.

The stark, Appalachian-tinged waltz Forever’s Not Much Time is a subtly venomous broadside that works on many levels: the creepy outro is priceless, and too good to give away. The message of One Love – an original – is not “let’s get together and feel all right,” but the devastating consequences of a garden left to die.

“We’ve got blood on our hands,” is Allison’s opening refrain in Love Died in Our Arms, another stab at orchestral hip-hop. She winds up the album a stark but ultimately optimistic, verdantly string-driven start-over theme, the closest thing to a medieval English ballad here.

Catchy, Bittersweet 60s Pop-Influenced Sounds and a Couple of Brooklyn Gigs From War Violet

Songwriter Jummy Aremu performs under the name War Violet. She writes catchy, anthemic, assertive songs and sings in a resonant, unpretentious voice. Her music has a strong 60s influence, both on the folk side and the pop side: Burt Bacharach-era Dionne Warwick is a good comparison. Aremu sold out the vinyl edition of her latest ep, Getaway, but it’s still streaming at Bandcamp. She’s at Our Wicked Lady on July 27 at 10 PM for $12. Then she’s at Pete’s on July 31 at 10 for the tip jar.

The first track on the record, Just For the Night is one of the most elegant songs ever written about a one-night stand, the synth orchestration sweeping over Arenmu’s spare guitar. “I’ve been to all of the parties in my day,” Aremu intones soberly in the album’s bossa-tinged second track: they must not have been much fun.

The big, exasperatedly poignant singalong here is the title track: “I don’t need this, I don’t need this,” is the mantra. With just emphatic acoustic guitar, snappy bass and a string synth, it’s simple, direct and will be wafting through your head for hours

The last track is I Hope I See You Again, a mix of sparkle and scruffiness: “Just look to the wall for answers big and small.” War Violet also has a Soundcloud page which probably predates the Bandcamp tracks and as you can imagine, the songs are rougher, but it shows she hit the ground running. Since last year’s lockdown, there’s been more attrition than ever in what you might call the rock scene here: good thing for us that War Violet stuck around.