New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Category: chamber pop

Mari Kalkun Sings a Rare Program of New and Ancient Estonian Music

Tuesday night at Scandinavia House, Mari Kalkun treated a packed auditorium to a very rare program of pensively bucolic, often hypnotic Estonian songs. But Kalkum is no ordinary folk singer: she writes her own material, often utilizing texts by both contemporary and historic Estonian poets. She sang in Estonian, Finnish and Voro a south Estonianl language that has only about seventy thousand remaining speakers, as she explained.

Her main axe is the kannel, a semi-oval-shaped stringed instrument that resembles a dulcimer but which she plucked like a harp slung around her shoulders. Since she uses traditional open tunings, the melodies didn’t move around much beyond the center,, further enhancing the dream state effect. Even when she switched to piano, she played similarly intricate, intertwining, subtly shifting upper-register voicings, anchored by an insistent, rhythmic lefthand. She did much the same on a Finnish box lute. The result was stately, often rapt and spacious: she let those starry plucks and chimes linger.

Engaging the audience at length between songs, she explained almost every one of them. Nature was a common theme, as was the ongoing population shift from rural areas to the cities;. Kalkun also sang a couple of love ballads that gave her a chance to air out a surprisingly powerufl low register, considering how airy and lilting most of the rest of the music on the bill was.

Her most energetic song was a sardonic post World War II tune about the Forest Brothers, the freedom fighters who’d managed to escape the Nazis by building underground bunkers deep in the woods – and then had to remain there to escape being captured by the next bunch of invaders, the Soviets. An impressive number of Estonian speakers in the crowd recognized the traditional numbers on the bill and sang along.

Toward the end of the show, Kalkun broke out her loop pedal and became a one-woman choir, interpolating an increasingly complex, rhythmically challenging series of layers. She sang the last of her encores a-cappella, walking through the auditorium and getting the audience to join her.

Kalkun’s next show, a duo set with Aleksandra Kremenetski, is back in her home country at the Writers House Festival in Talinn on May 25 at 9 PM. Scandinavia House, less than five blocks south of Grand Central on Park Avenue, has very diverse programming, with music, film and exhibits representing artists from across the Nordic countries. The next concert there is June 20 at 7:30 PM with Icelandic  jazz bassist Sigmar Matthíasson and Arora – cover is $15

A Rare City Park Show and a Mighty, Harrowing New Suite From Stephanie Chou

For the last couple of years, Barnard College has staged an amazingly eclectic, entertaining annual concert under the trees in the crabapple grove in Riverside Park just north of 91st Street. This years’s festival is this Satruday night, May 18, starting at 5 PM with one of New York’s most socially relevant and ambitious jazz talents, alto saxophonist/singer Stephanie Chou. This time out she’ll be leading a trio with pianist Jason Yeager and drummer Ronen Itzik Other acts on the bill include the Bacchantae, Barnard College’s all-female a cappella group, ferociously dynamic, tuneful, female-fronted power trio Castle Black, and the Educadorian-flavored Luz Pinos Band

Chou’s latest larger-scale project is titled Comfort Girl. It’s a harrowing, phanstasmagorical song cycle based on the terrors faced by the over two hundred thousand women who were forced into sexual slavery during the Japanese occupation of China during World War II. Some of those women were raped thousands of times. To add insult to injury, when those who survived were able to return home after the Japanese retreat, many of them were shunned. Chou debuted it at Joe’s Pub at the end of March. What was most striking about the show was not only Chou’s ability to shift between musical styles, but her prowess as a lyricist.

A flurry from Kenny Wollesen’s drums signaled the intro to the jaunty march Manchurian Girl, a late 30s Chinese pop hit. The lyrics are innocuous: a young woman waiting for her boo to return home so she can tie the knot. Chou sang it with more than a hint of foreshadowing, the music rising to a shivery tightness, Andy Lin’s vibrato-tinged violin over his sister Kelly Lin’s emphatic piano.

Narrator Peregrine Heard continued the story; girl meets boy and everything seems rosy in the countryside, echoed by a sax-violin duet that began coyly and then took on a swirling, triumphantly pulsing tone which turned wary and enigmatic as the two diverged harmonically.

The violinist switched to the even more shivery, plaintive-toned erhu fiddle for a Chinese parlor-pop ballad of sorts, Forever I Will Sing Your Song, crooner Orville Mendoza’s anticipatory drama contasting with Chou’s more demure delivery. The music grew suddenly chaotic as Japanese soldiers crushed the wedding ceremony, knocking out the groom and tearing his bride away.

Surrealistic piano glimmer over Wollesen’s noir percussion ambience supplied the backdrop for Chou’s wounded vocals in Shattered. Mendoze sang the pretty straight-up, determined piano rock ballad after that, the groom determined to get his beloved back. Meanwhile, she’s being paraded through one of the Japanese rape camps – the euphemistically named “Jade Star Hotel” – along with a group of captives. The piece’s simple military chorus was as chilling as any moment through the show, as was the haunting, phamtasmagorical waltz after that; “No name,, no hope: No life”

The young woman was thrown into a a cell, got a new Japanese name, and with a portentous crescendo and diabolical flickers from the violin, the music became a horror film score, It would have been historically accurate for the music to remain a morass of atonalities and cruel slashes punctuated by brief, mournful stillness, but Chou went deeper, with an aptly aching, Chinese-language ballad, her narravor terrified that her husband-to-be will reject her after all she’s had to suffer.

A coldly circling interlude captured the soldiers in line waiting for their turn with the “military provisions,” as the women were called. “We can do whatever we want to do,” Mendoza’s narrator sniffeed. A haunting, Pink Floyd-tinged interlude depicted her fiance giving up his search, miles away; Chou’s heroine remained defiant through a vindictive, venomous English-language anthem.

A spare, bucolic folk song – the kind the women would sing to remind each other of home – was next on the bil, followed by an anxious but undeterred ballad sung by Mendoza. Kelly Lin’s plaintive Debussy-esque crescendos lit up the number after that.

Flourishes from violin and sax underscored the young woman’s determination to beat the odds and survive, via a variation on the earlier, soul-tnnged revenge anthem. Unlike most of her fellow captives, this woman was able to escape, the piano driving a deliciously redemptive theme. And although her future husband realizes at the end that as she makes is back to her old village, “There’s still someone in there,”most of these women were not so lucky. Good news: Chou plans to release the suite as a studio recording.

Transcendent Lyrical and Vocal Power From Mary Lee’s Corvette at the Mercury

Saturday night at the Mercury, Mary Lee’s Corvette put on a clinic in eclectic tunesmithing, smartly conversational interplay, brilliant lyricism and spine-tlngling vocals. There literally isn’t a style that frontwoman/guitarist Mary Lee Kortes can’t write in: powerpop, Americana, glam rock, cabaret, classical, jazz, and psychedelia, to name a few. She did a lot of that, and held the crowd spellbound with that crystalline voice, which can leap two octaves or more, effortlessly. She’s been regarded as arguably the best singer in New York for a long time (noir haunter Karla Rose and Indian belter Roopa Mahadevan are good points of comparison).

Throughout a tantalizing forty-five minute set, Kortes validated everything good that’s ever been said about her. The band opened with the gritty new wave-flavored kiss-off anthem Need for Religion (as in, “Maybe it was just my need for religion that made me believe in you,” and it gets meaner from there). New lead guitarist Jack Morer played purposeful, incisiive fills on his Strat while new bassist Cait O’Riordan – founding member of the Pogues – shifted from nimble, dancing lines to snarling upward runs, and swung hard. Not only does she totally get Kortes’ songwriting – which some players can’t – but she also makes a good visual foil, two tall blondes bopping onstage and intertwining riffs.

Smartly, Kortes paired the warily triumphant garage-psych anthem Out From Under It with Learn  From What I Dream, with its edgy chromatic riffage and 60s Laurel Canyon psych-folk ambience. Through the night, the dream world was a frequent reference point, considering that Kortes is also a compelling prose writer and editor, with a new book, Dreaming of Dylan: 115 Dreams About Bob just out. Since Kortes has had more than a few (including a touching “don’t quit writing songs, no matter what” dream, as she explained to the crowd), it makes sense that she’d pull a collection like that together.

The best song of the night might have been Well by the Water, a corrosively metaphorical, lilting amthem that works on the innumerable, Elvis Costello-esque levels that Kortes loves so much, as apt a portrait of tightlipped Midwestern dysfunction as a history of human civilization itself. After that, the band stretched out in a bitingly bluesy take of Dylan’s Meet Me in the Morning – which Mary Lee’s Corvette famously recorded on their live cover of Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks album.

O’Riordan approached the slow, lingering bittersweet mini-epic Portland Michigan – a not-so-fond childhood reminiscence – with finesse but also as a search for impactful harmony, something few bass players do. They closed with a new song, a series of dreamscapes over a pulsing, Stonesy vamp – which Kortes used as a launching pad for her most spellbinding leaps of the night. Good to see this band back at a venue where they’ve put on similarly transcendent shows over the years.

Lurid, Creepy, Lush String Sounds on Natalia Steinbach’s New WaterLynx Album

Violinist Natalia Steinbach turns into a haunting, carnivalesque one-woman string orchestra on her new WaterLynx ep, streaming at Bandcamp. On one hand, it’s as grand guignol and gothic AF; on the other it’s not cliched either. That’s a fine line, and Steinbach manages to walk it…in black six-inch stilettos, one assumes. The former member of the alternatively lush and assaultive Naked Roots Conducive duo with cellist Valerie Kuehne is playing the album release show at Pine Box Rock Shop on May 16 at 9:30 PM.

Steinbach opens the album with a big, pulsing, angst-fueled ballad, Moonlight in Decay, switching back and forth between a creepy waltz and a more straightforwardly anthemic theme. There’s klezmer and Romany influences in the moody minor-keys; “Having trouble seeing when the lights are in full bloom,” she alludes in her dramatic, colorful soprano.

Steinbach sings Don’t Tempt Me – a setting of an embittered, distraught Evgeny Baratynsky poem – in the original Russian, over a plaintively swaying arrangement akin to what Tschaikovsky would have done with a folk lament. Then she switches gears with the insistent, lyrically torrential, sardonically desperate Breathe in Nothing, her one-woman string section flickering up some delicious chromatics.

The album’s final cut is There Is No Demon, a steady, dancing anthem with an intro like Vivaldi on acid, and gorgeously macabre vocal harmonies on the chorus: it’s the album’s most venomous track. Fans of the dark and dramatic, from the little girls who crushed on Lorde, to the vets who prefer Rasputina and Carol Lipnik, ought to give this often spine-tingling collection a spin.

Icy, Trippy, Shapeshifting Anthems and a Bed-Stuy Show From Arc Iris

Arc Iris sometimes play icily orchestrated, techy art-rock in the same vein as My Brightest Diamond, or a more keyboard-driven Wye Oak. In more concise moments, they put a trippier spin on glossy 80s new wave pop – not what you might expect from a band fronted by a woman who got her start in earnest-core folk-rockers the Low Anthem. Arc Iris are playing C’Mon Everybody on April 10 at 10 PM; cover is $10.

Their latest album, Icon of Ego is streaming at Bandcamp. This band likes long songs, weird time signatures and syncopation, and surreal lyrics that sometimes seem to be in the stream-of-consciousness vein, other times with a Romantic poetic tinge. There’s also a welcome guitar-fueled edge: this is the hardest-rocking release the band’s put out to date. 

Drummer Ray Belli’s insistent thump anchors singer Jocie Adams chirpy yet emphatic vocals as the anxiously blustery opening track, $GNMS (a remake of the first cut on the band’s debut album) gets underway, keyboardist Zach Tenorio-Miller layering his textures from lush to woozy and bassy.

Dylan & Me is a chilly, loopy, stainless-topped 90s trip-hop joint in an early Goldfrapp vein, the swirly oscillations of the keys contrasting with Adams’ coyly nuanced vocals. The charmingly catchy If You Can See begins with a big smack from Adams’ guitar and grows more serpentine, with echoey Rhodes piano cascades as the song goes along.

She multitracks stately, incisive stadium rock riffage into the towering atmosphere of Turn It Up: the lyrics seem to be more playfully amusing than on any of the other tracks. The fluttering strings of violinist Anna Williams and cellist Misha Veselov open the album’s title cut, then it takes on both more epic and hypnotic proportions.

Chattermachines has echoes of Radiohead and the Cocteau Twins filtering through a mix of sheen and low growl. It’s hard to figure out what these songs are about: this could be a snide commentary on social media obsession, but it could just as easily be something else entirely.

Beautiful Mind is a catchy, starrlly orchestrated, trickily dancing kiss-off anthem, it seems. Everybody’s Counting on Her is a rather wistful early 70s soul ballad spun through the prism of post-Radiohead art-rock. Something here is “shadowed by the great machine” – ain’t that the truth. The album’s final cut is Suzy, Adams’ torrents of lyrics bringing to mind REM’s It’s the End of the World. If you like to get lost in an epic way, Arc Iris are for you. 

There Will Be No Intermission: Amanda Palmer’s Big Comeback Album?

Let’s not get into the issue of Amanda Palmer, polarizing figure, naked on the cover of her new album There Will Be No Intermission, streaming at Bandcamp.  At her best, she’s a big-picture person, a withering lyricist, a distinctive and finely nuanced singer, a strong pianist and an equally strong, surprisingly eclectic tunesmith. She also plays ukulele. The core of the band here is Jherek Bischoff on bass, guitars and a bunch of other instruments,  John Congleton on drums and Max Henry on synths 

The album’s opening track is as riveting as Palmer is onstage: whatever you think of her, you cannot deny her prowess as a performer. After a wisp of an intro, her waltzing piano elegantly and eerily introduces the ten-minute epic The Ride. Working neoromantic variations on a carnivalesque riff we all know, she sings intimately, comfortingly…as the planet heats up, the waters rise and

Some are too scared to let go of their children,
And some are too scared now to have them
Suicide, homicide, genocide, man
That’s a fuck ton of sides you can choose from
I want you to think of me sitting and singing beside you
I wish we could meet all the people who got left behind
The ride is so loud it can make you think no one is listening
But isn’t it nice when we all can cry at the same time?

There’s a whole lot more to the song than that, but it’s Roger Waters-class visionary, and it’s the best song released this year so far.

Much as that proves to be an impossible act to follow, Palmer is clearly over the crippling case of writer’s block that plagued her for years. Drowning in the Sound, a surreal mashup of 80s Peter Gabriel, vintage Bowie glamrock and swishy mid-zeros theatreboy pop, has a similarly grim narrative:

Your body is a temple
And the temple is a prison
And the prison’s overcrowded
And the inmates know it’s flooding
And the body politic is getting sicker by the minute
And the media’s not fake
It’s just very inconvenient
Do you ever feel like this should be officially the end?
And that you should be the one to do the ending, but you can’t?
Do you ever feel like everyone is slowly letting go?
Do you ever feel that, that incredibly alone?

The Thing About Things is a uke song with a big dramatic chorus midway through. It’s a story about a lost ring, and how objects serve as surrogates for those we care about (Palmer’s take on that is far more poetic than that description). Machete – a 2016 single – is another good story, shifting between catchy new wave disco and atmospheric, Floydian art-rock. The title is a loaded metaphor.

In Voicemail for Jill, a tender piano ballad, Palmer offers to throw “the best abortion shower” for a Boston friend who numbers among the 33% of American women who’ve had one. And hang with A Mother’s Confession (another older tune) for all ten minutes plus, even though it’s mawkish and way too long, because the punchline is killer – and it’s the second time Palmer, mother of two, delivers it.

Look Mummy No Hands is the album’s most musically creepy track, even more phantasmagorical than the starker live version released on Palmer’s 2013 triple live album with her husband Neil Gaiman. The album ends with the cynical, ornate, Alan Parsons Project-style elegy Death Thing. There’s other material here, but considering how relevant and masterfully crafted the crux of the album is, let’s leave the haters on Facebook and Instagram where they belong. Even with all the filler, it’s good to see an important voice still speaking truth to power. Nice to see you still making records, Amanda Palmer.

A Ferocious, Funny. Surreal New Album and a LES Show by the Charismatic Mary Spencer Knapp and Toot Sweet

To call Mary Spencer Knapp a force of nature really doesn’t do her justice. She will drop you in your tracks. The self-described accordion shredder is also a brilliant pianist, with a purposeful, bluesy streak. She’s a strong lyricist, she’s funny and she’s a whirlwind onstage. On the mic, she can move from a vengeful wail to a purr to something surreal and outer-dimensional, sometimes within the span of a few seconds, and make it seem completely natural. And there isn’t a style of music she can’t write: she’s played everything from Dominican folk to noir cabaret to the fringes of the avant garde.

Likewise, her new album Disco Eclipse with her band Toot Sweet – streaming at Bandcamp, blends new wave rock with cabaret, oldschool disco, soul music and a little performance art. The core of the group also includes Doug Berns on bass, Tyler Kaneshiro on trumpet and synth,and Javier Ramos on drums. They’re playing the album release show on March 31 at 8 PM at the small room at the Rockwood.

The album’s catchy, sarcastically strutting first song, Civilians comes across as a mashup of cabaret, the B-52s and early Talking Heads. It starts with a talk with the “drug counselor” and ends with Knapp bemoaning that “My grandfather killed civilians, I’m just one of seven billion.” In between songs, there are several playful miniatures. The best, titled Toot Suite, a wistful stroll with a tasty, torrential accordion solo and an ending that ’s too good to give away.

The soul-infused Northern Boulevard is even catchier: it’s a shout-out to a Queens neighborhood that starts with a rush to pick up a nameless injured person and then a wistful look back at a time before social media distractions:

There was something about living, living in the moment
I could achieve when I was there
There was something about sensing the world was ending
To free me from my usual affairs
There was something about making a saint of a man
Finding purpose in a good old laugh
There was something about living, living in the moment
I could achieve when I was there

Knapp’s full-throated voice, accordion and nostalgia for Old New York all bring to mind another first-rate, eclectic accordion-wielding songwriter, Rachelle Garniez.

Rolling on the Floor is a twisted, sultry cabaret-funk-punk tune about various situations which involve the floor, and also rolling:

She’s a manicured cutie
Big cat eyes with a bootie
Says she gonna give you triple X tonight
You want something more bovine?
You’re gonna have to draw the line

After the surreal stream-of-consciousness uke tune Fault Line, Bloody Murder is a surreal blend of Sergeant Pepper Beatles, the English Beat and no wave, set to a disco groove. Don’t you go running to mommy because “She’s a maleficent director, she’s gonna strut you and then she’ll cut you.”

In Rainy Day, Knapp builds a bouncy, bleakly surrealistic daydrunk scenario, followed by a trippy dub miniature. “I’ll make you sick of me,” is her vengeful mantra in the hypnotically hammering Playground Politics – and it gets more allusively vengeful from there.

Sway could be Laurie Anderson at her most rocking, while Bzzzness alternates variations on a slit-eyed boudoir theme with big crescendos from Knapp’s assertive gospel piano. The album’s final cut is the apocalyptic Tread Softly Epilogue. As diversely dramatic as these songs can be, they only hint at the kind of slinky valkyrie fury Knapp can work up onstage.

Oh yeah – Knapp was also a cast member in that popular Broadway show based on War and Peace.

Stephanie Chou Unveils Her Powerful, Socially Relevant New Suite

What makes Stephanie Chou’s music so much more interesting than most jazz these days? It’s a lot more tuneful, it’s often very playful, draws frequently on Chinese themes from over the centuries, and Chou isn’t afraid to take all this and rock out sometimes. And she’s a double threat, on the horn and the mic: she has a bright, edgy tone on the alto sax and sings in a soulful mezzo-soprano in both English and Chinese. Her most recent album, Asymptote – taking its name from one of the most philosophical constructs in mathematics – is streaming at youtube. Her next gig, at 7 PM on March 29 at Joe’s Pub, has special importance for Women’s History Month: it’s the debut of her harrowing new suite Comfort Girl, which explores the lives of the over two hundred thousand women exploited by sex traffickers in China during the World War II Japanese occupation. Cover is $15

The compositions on Asymptote aren’t as harrowing as that, but Chou doesn’t shy away from deep topics. She opens it with Kangding Love Song, a moody, latinized take on Chinese folk, John Escreet’s piano anchoring the music alongside bassist Zack Lober and drummer Kenny Wollesen, Andy Lin’s erhu fiddle floating sepulchrally overhead.

Wollesen gets to indulge in his signature Wollesonics with his homemade gongs and such in Eating Grapes, a popular Chinese tongue-twister that Chou recites without missing a syllable. Escreet’s elegant pointillisms and Lin’s aching erhu propel the Moon You’ll See My Heart, a bittersweetly starry English-language art-rock update on a 1970s Chinese pop hit. The title track is a less memorable take on acoustic coffeehouse folk-pop.

Does the recording of Penelope live up to how this blog described it in concert last year, “a haunting, crescendoing backbeat rock ballad fueled by Lin’s aching viola and a spiraling, smoky sax solo [that] would have been a huge radio hit for an artsy band like the Alan Parsons Project thirty years ago?” No smoky sax solo here, but otherwise, doublecheck!

General’s Command, an old Fujianese zither song gets reinvented as a stern, martial theme, then quickly goes in a lightheartedly strutting direction punctuated by a couple of blustery interludes. It sounds like this guy’s soldiers are having lots of fun behind his back.

A steady, brooding piano-and-sax intro, Chou overdubbing both instruments herself, opens Quiet Night Thought, Wollesen’s stately, minimalist percussion adding a tropical edge. As this setting of a Li Bai poem picks up steam, the lush blend of Chou’s vocals and sax is very affecting.

Making Tofu, a jazz waltz, is much more astringent and soaringly anthemic than a song about those flavorless little cubes would have you believe. The enigmatic, troubled tone poem In the Forest brings to mind Jen Shyu’s work with her Jade Tongue ensemble: it’s a salute to a legendary hermit from Chou’s upstate New York hometown. She winds up the album with the brief, uneasily twinkling Moon Recrudescence. It’s a shock this album has slipped so far under the radar up to now.

A Rare NYC Show by Distantly Menacing, Icily Sepulchral Shapeshifters Dollshot

It might seem hard to imagine free jazz stalwarts like drummer Mike Pride and microtonal saxophonist Noak Kaplan making a  80s-influenced rock record. Add JACK Quartet cellist Kevin McFarland to the mix and the idea gets even more suspicious. Except that this actually happened – and the record turned out to be fantastic.

Dollshot – whose core is Kaplan and his otherworldly singer wife Rosalie – put out a monster debut album back in 2011. Mixing the sardonic and the sinister, the duo twisted early Second Viennese School songs into bizarre shapes when they weren’t writing their own surreal, carnivalesque originals, spinning the sounds of the early 20th century avant garde through a smoky funhouse mirror from the jazz loft scene of the 60s and 70s. It took them six more years before they made Lalande, a new wave-inflected record which in an icier way is just as menacing, and streaming at youtube. Reputedly there’s a follow-up in the works: you might hear songs from both at their show tomorrow night, March 11 at 10 PM at Coney Island Baby. Cover is $8.

The album’s opening track, Paradise Flat comes across as a mashup of techy 80s Peter Gabriel and French postpunk-popsters Autour de Lucie, Wes Matthews’ starry keys balanced by the dry, crisp syncopation of Pride’s drums and Peter Bitenc’s bass, sax wafting subtly overhead. Rosalie Kaplan’s inimitably sepulchral, high soprano vocals are so pitch-perfect they’re scary – there’s deadly nightshade in the tenderness of her delivery.

With its martial drum flurries and Kaplan’s sotto-voce shifts, the second track, Gimbal seems to be a chilly 80s update on the Jefferson Airplane’s White Rabbit, McFarland’s austere lines calm amid a maze of dripping sonic stalactites. Dollshot also have a very funny side, which bubbles up in Circulate Stop, Kaplan’s spoken word cadavre exquis lyrics over ominously wafting ambience.

She rises matter-of-factly from somber to soaring over Matthews’ melancholy neoromantic piano throuhout the album’s title track, its most majestic, anthemic number. The backdrop of Swan Gone is a Bride of Frankenstein stroll, Kaplan’s enigmatic, almost-imploring voice overhead.

Ichor (meaning blood of the gods) is mashup of the debut album’s warptone surrealism and syncopated 70s Genesis, but with a nimbler rhythm section. Cythera seems to be a torch song parody, Kaplan’s gentle, feathery vocals taking a barrage of spitballs from the rest of the band.

Birds of the West, the closest thing to oldschool 80s new wave pop here, has stabbingly insistent keys balanced by dreamy vocals. The next-to-last cut, She, begins austerely with Kaplan’s wounded resonance amidst horror movie music-box sonics, and picks up steam from there, a march toward a grim ending you can see coming a mile away. The album ends elegantly and not a little enigmatically with Nacht und Traume. All this is reason to look forward to whatever other strangely captivating sounds the band can conjure up on the next record.

Tredici Bacci Bring Their Sick Sense of Humor to the Mercury

The album cover painting for cinematic, lushly orchestrated psychedelic band Tredici Bacci’s new album La Fine del Futuro – streaming at Bandcamp – shows a knife stuck in the back of a beach chair, blood dripping from the blade. How much of that is outright menace and how much is the band’s signature, cosmopolitan snark? This time out, the jokes and the satire in bandleader/bassist Simon Hanes’ themes are much more front and center. You can decide out for yourself at the album release show at 11 PM on Valentine’s Day at the Mercury; cover is $12. Since the band name is Italian for “thirteen kisses,”  they get a pass for booking a show on one of the three nights when everybody should stay home (St. Paddy’s and New Years Eve are the others).

In the time-honored tradition of Booker T & the MG’s and the Ventures, there were two versions of this band in their earliest days: in their case, one in Boston and one in New York. That might explain why their Bandcamp page doesn’t have musician credits. The baritone sax solo in the new album’s first number, Titoli de Testa, sounds like a series of split-second attempts to cover mistakes. However, versatile singer Sami Stevens’ deadpan arioso vocals seem committed to the bouncy, blithe, bossa-tinged theme. It brings to mind Banda Magda before they got serious and political.

In the 1970s is a bizarre mashup of Italian film score and fluffy American disco, Stevens enumerating how many reasons things were better forty-plus ago. As anybody who was there will tell you, they weren’t – it’s just that contested elections were swung by phony ballots instead of Russian hackers, and in lieu of mining data, employers and banks simply wouldn’t hire or lend to people from certain neighborhoods.

Minimalissimo pokes fun at both 70s motorik instrumentals and peevishly repetitive 20th century composers – and the 21st century ones who still don’t know better. Barbarians is a mashup of the album’s first and third tracks: repetitive hooks, operatic vocals and a tongue-in-cheek heroic fanfare at the center. Complete with peppy brass, Stevens’ high-voltage vocalese and a probably intentionally wretched attempt at singing by one of the guys in the band, Emmanuelle could be the great, twisted lost spaghetti western psychedelic pop tune from Manfred Hubler’s Vampyros Lesbos soundtrack.

Felicity Grows could be Weird Al Yankovic making fun of Burt Bacharach, with a woman out front. Promises, Promises is much the same: it’s so spot-on it could be a Dionne Warwick b-side from when she spelled her last name with an E. As a parody of 70s easy-listening pop, The Cavalry is even more blithely savage: Ward White at his most sardonic comes to mind.

Awash in elegant strings and woodwinds, the moody Impressions shifts in and out of waltz time: it’s the only track on the album that doesn’t sound like a joke, at least until the bizarre mashup of tropicalia and horror film score kicks in. Ambulette is a series of variations on a simple, ridiculously obvious theme – it’s not a real ambulance, get it? To close the album, the band make disco out of a phony patriotic tune they call The Liberty Belle. How apropos for 2019, right? If this isn’t the best album of the year, it’s definitely the funniest so far.