New York Music Daily

Love's the Only Engine of Survival

Category: chamber pop

A Rare Glimpse of New Artists Coming Out of Iran

One of the more intriguing playlists that ended up on the hard drive here last year was the Homanity compilation of recent music by Iranian artists, streaming at Spotify. The segues are weird, but that’s to be expected considering the diversity of styles on it.

It’s on the quiet side, more influenced by traditional Iranian folk, European pop and art-rock sounds than the inimitably funky psychedelia that was all the rage there before the 1979 counterrevolution. The fourteen artists on the record sing in Farsi. A promised cheat sheet for Farsi-deprived English speakers never materialized, but, many stranger things have happened over the past twenty-one hellish months. At this point, it’s a miracle that artists outside the free world continue to release any music at all.

The first track is crooner Sattar’s Farghi Nemikoneh, a lilting midtempo minor-key folk-rock tune with a delicately melismatic string section and a nimbly picked interweave of acoustic and electric guitars. Chanteuse Nikita goes for understated Eurovision drama in the second track, Yadam Nemire, which could be the Gipsy Kings with a woman out front.

TarantisT contribute Soldiering, a steadily marching, surreal mashup of death metal, hip-hop and 80s goth. Singer Shery M channels muted angst and full-on longing over neoromantic piano and spare rock guitar in Havaye Khooneh.

The best-known band here, Kiosk are represented by Parviz, an uncharacteristically low-key, twinkling Iranian approximation of late 60s Velvet Underground. There’s more moody, chanteusey trip-hop with Shab, by Shaya and Soltan, by Justina.

Bardia Taghipour builds his warily rising and falling ballad, Baba, around a familiar art-rock descending riff. Hero & Frya‘s In Manam harks back to 70s American acid rock. The lone hip-hop track here is Raay Bee Raay, by Behrouz Ghaemi.

Arash Rahbary features in two stark, spare poetic epics: Khoon Bood, with activist and dissenter Fatemeh Ekhtesari, and Gorbeh, with Mehdi Moousavi.

Bassist Devin Hoff Reinvents British Folk Classics As Tersely Magical Low-Register Themes

Anne Briggs emerged as one of the most distinctive singers in the British folk movement of the late 60s and early 70s, and remains a beloved figure from that era. Many of the songs she helped popularize have become standards. Now, bassist Devin Hoff has taken Briggs’ outside-the-box sensibility to the next level with his new album Voices From the Empty Moor: Songs of Anne Briggs, streaming at Bandcamp. It’s a collection of starkly beautiful new arrangements for bass and vocals, solo bass, and slightly more expansive instrumentation. Much as the new versions are far beyond anything the guitar-strumming troubadours of the Britfolk revival ever envisioned, Hoff always leaves some or all of the familiar melody intact. If you love low-register music, or the source material, you have to hear this album.

He opens with She Moved Through the Fair, beginning with a diesel engine-like drone, then bowing a spacious, unadorned solo melody line, then bringing back the drone and building the sonic picture from there. It’s even more stark and ghostly than Briggs’ original.

Sharon van Etten sings Go Your Way with a spot-on, nuanced, airy woundedness as Hoff fills in the low end with chords and tersely dancing riffs. Julia Holter takes over vocals wistfully for Let No Man Steal Your Thyme, Hoff building stygian cello-metalish ambience with layers of loops.

Saxophonist Howard Wiley squalls, wafts and spins through Maa Bonny Lad, Hoff texturing the backdrop with keening harmonics, pitchblende resonance and a gracefully loping bassline. Living By the Water has plaintive, unadorned vocals by Shannon Lay, slinky bass melismatics and pulsing harmonies that could pass for an accordion. All that from a bass, damn.

Hoff makes a diptych out of The Snow It Melts the Soonest and My Bonny Boy, bowing the first with a slithery attack anchored by a low E. Alejandro Farha plays similarly purposeful, incisive oud on the latter. Hoff’s deft shift between bassline and multiple vocal harmony lines in Black Waterside, sung by Emmett Kelly, is a clinic in imagination and good taste.

The closest thing to a straight-up rock arrangement here is Willie O’ Winsbury, a gorgeously restrained, jangly, psychedelic instrumental version with Jim White on drums and Hoff handling guitars as well as bass. He closes solo with a brief and appropriately somber verse of The Lowlands.

I, Robot? Not Alan Parsons!

It’s the last night of the tour, in a midsize sit-down theatre somewhere in Holland. The bandleader is the lone holdover from the original group, and he’s neither the lead instrumentalist nor their regular frontman.

Throughout a demanding set long enough to fill two cds, the band careen through an impressively diverse mix of Pink Floyd-influenced art-rock, expansively elegant ballads and singalong anthems which the audience seem to know well. That’s no surprise, considering that many of these songs received incessant radio airplay back in the day when that was the key driver of album sales.

While many of the arrangements are new, and fresh, to match the cast onstage, the band are roadweary. Some numbers, particularly the most dystopic ones, feature a sequencer, which ends up backfiring. The longer the song goes on, the further the players drift apart, to the point where everybody’s in his own individual time zone. How ironic, and amusing, that an Alan Parsons band – harshly critiqued for a cold, digital, studio-clean esthetic – could sound so haphazard onstage

The crowning irony is that this is nothing new. The original Alan Parsons Project that finally began touring in the 90s was a beast of a live band, and took all kinds of chances, and this particular group share that fearlessness if not the same sizzle and majesty. A third irony is that while the group’s 1995 Live album also fails to capture the band’s intrepid improvisational side, this one – The Never Ending Show: Live in the Netherlands, streaming at Spotify – does, even if it’s pretty untight in places. Seriously: if you’re a fan of the band, wouldn’t you want to hear them fly completely without a net? Isn’t that what live music is all about?

Tellingly, it takes two guitarists – Jeff Kollman and Dan Tracey – to compensate for the absence of Ian Bairnson, one of the most underrated and versatile shredders of the art-rock era. The clockwork rhythm section of bassist David Paton and drummer Stuart Elliott is long gone, but new drummer Danny Thompson can really swing, and has a flair for the unexpected, which is great. He also speeds up and slows down, not always matched by bassist Guy Erez, who may not be able to hear him in the monitors.

The original band relied on a rotating cast of singers until keyboardist Eric Woolfson – whose Edgar Allan Poe song cycle improbably springboarded a long run of concept albums – more or less took over as lead singer. Here, P.J. Olsson and Parsons himself are flinty and weathered; Jordan Asher Huffman is an upgrade on the songs originally assigned to raspier vocalists.

This is not the place to discover the Parsons catalog. Newcomers should start with their arguably most symphonic and ambitious record, 1981’s Turn of a Friendly Card and work forward through Eye in the Sky and the erratic Ammonia Avenue, the two successive chapters in Woolfson’s gloomy existentialist triptych. But for longtime fans, there’s a lot to like here, and the unevenness is more endearing than exasperating. I, Robot? Not Alan Parsons!

Don’t Answer Me – the crushingly cynical, Lynchian pop ballad where Parsons managed to one-up Phil Spector – is more stripped-down here, and not as emotionally searing as earlier versions of the band would play it. Likewise, Tom Brooks’ Procol Harum organ on Old and Wise and Don’t Let It Show is tantalizingly lurid…and fleeting.

But his playful jazz piano break on Primetime is plenty outside-the-box. And the vocals on the powerpop hit Breakdown – which segues into a moodily restrained version of The Raven – are a vast improvement. Us and Them Time drifts calmly toward a distant doom, without Bairnson’s loud slide guitar. The instrumental Luciferama is a mashup of Lucifer and Mammagamma, more psychedelic funk than motorik theme, guitars front and center.

Surprisingly, the art-funk hits are where the gremlins rear their heads. There are also four more recent songs. Three are quite good on face value: one sounds a lot like Matt Keating, another is a bluegrass-inflected folk-pop ballad, both of them somberly contemplating posterity. The vaudevillian-tinged title track is part late 60s Kinks, part Moody Blues. The song that kicks off the album sounds suspiciously satirical: check the title. Parsons seems to be the last person who wants to see the world under silicon-fisted technocratic rule.

Smartly Crafted, Anthemic, Beatlesque Art-Rock From Laura Mihalka

Laura Mihalka‘s moody keyboard ballads draw a straight line back to the Beatles as well as Pink Floyd and ELO. She also plays cello on her new album Feels Electric, streaming at Spotify. Producer Jesse Siebenberg plays the David Gilmour, Roger Waters and Nick Mason instrumental roles, filling in the sound with a symphonic understatement.

The album opens with Falling Apart, a gospel-tinted piano ballad with some unexpectedly creepy chromatics and a big, bombastic, Floydian guitar interlude that Mihalka follows with a gorgeously neoromantic solo of her own. The title track begins more enigmatic and hypnotic before she shifts it into elegant late Beatles territory.

Mihalka sticks with the Fab Four influence in Stumble Upon, a steady, swaying, Lennonesque number. She switches to electric piano for Pineapple Man, an Elliott Smith-ish trip-hop song with more than a hint of Indian music at the end. Then she goes back to the grand piano and adds spare cello accents to Forgiven: it’s her Great Gig in the Sky.

David Levita contributes flangey 70s guitar to Out for the Night, an aptly wafting nocturne. Mihalka goes straight back to the Beatles for Paradise, goo goo ga joob. Lennon meets Lucinda Williams – more or less – in Battleground. Then Mihalka strips things down to a simple early 90s pop sound with Sacred Sky, Siebenberg raising the energy with a crackling solo.

“We could all use you right now,” she intones in the elegaic ballad She’s Everything. She closes the album with Looking Back, adrift in wafting orchestration and twinkling, Hawaiian-flavored steel guitar. Beyond Mihalka’s stoic, impassive vocals, this could be a first-class Jeff Lynne orchestral pop production from the late 70s. That good.

A Lush Lynchian Masterpiece From Howe Gelb and the Colorist Orchestra

It is nothing short of astonishing how after a long career leading iconic southwestern gothic pioneers Giant Sand, and then as a solo artist, Howe Gelb is arguably at the peak of his career as a songwriter. His latest album, Not on the Map – streaming at Bandcamp – is a serendipitously Lynchian collaboration with Belgian art-rock ensemble the Colorist Orchestra. As you would expect just from the artists involved, this is a lock for one of the best albums of 2021.

The group open with Counting On: “The frontlines are closing in,” Gelb mutters as the strings flutter and Sep François’ vibraphone rings eerily. It could be an especially lush Botanica number from that band’s most orchestral, mid-zeros peak.

Gelb’s voice has weathered like a good whiskey over the years, best evidenced here by his unselfconsciously saturnine delivery throughout the cover of the Glenn Campbell countrypolitan hit Gentle on My Mind.

Pieta Brown contributes two songs of her own, first joining Gelb in a duet, Sometimes I Wish, a fondly nocturnal waltz. Karel Coninx’s viola floats starkly over the enveloping backdrop from violinist Jeroen Baert, Gerrit Valckenaers’ bass clarinet and Tim Vandenbergh’s bass. Wim De Busser’s piano is a light in a windowshade alongside the twinkling percussion. Brown’s other duet here is Sweet Pretender, a hazy country ballad.

Percussionists Kobe Proesmans and Aarich Jespers anchor the lilting latin-tinged groove in Dr Goldman, a distantly sinister, enveloping twilight tableau: imagine a warmer, less synthy version of Australian legends Flash & the Pan flown in to the Arizona desert..

The closest comparison to Leonard Cohen here is Thyne Eyes, a semi-bolero gently spiced with De Busser’s plucky prepared piano and the gleam from François’ vibes. Gelb half-sings, half-whispers Ruin Everything in his weathered baritone, the album’s most hypnotic, atmospheric, subtly gospel-tinged ballad. “Now you’ve mastered the art of the undone,” he intones.

The album’s most unselfconsciously gorgeous track is Tarantula, a dusky opening-credits theme with Gelb on what sounds like a reed organ. A single, fleeting moment of menace from the bass clarinet could be the most breathtaking point here.

Vandenbergh’s spare, dancing bass gives More Exes a loping Big Lazy groove behind Gelb’s evocative, understatedly menacing railroad trestle scenario. The group close the record with the title track, a classic Gelb noir bolero awash in aching strings, keening highs from Valckenaers’ glass bowls and some deliciously uneasy, microtonal work from Coninx.

Magos Herrera Brings Her Elegant, Genre-Defying, Poignant Songcraft to a Popular Outdoor Queens Spot

Singer Magos Herrera‘s music spans the worlds of jazz, film themes, contemporary classical and many styles from her native Mexico. This blog has witnessed her in a rapturous, intimate duo performance with her longtime collaborator, guitarist Javier Limon, as well as a much more lush and politically-fueled set with string quartet Brooklyn Rider. When live music was criminalized throughout much of the world in 2020, she turned to the web for supporting musicians. The result is Con Alma, the most eclectic album of an amazingly eclectic career, an “operatic tableau on isolation” streaming at Bandcamp. Herrera is back in action in New York, with a 7 PM gig outdoors on Halloween night at Terraza 7, where she’s leading a quintet. The Elmhurst venue is best known for jazz, so that’s probably going to be what Herrera brings to the stage, but knowing her, anything is possible.

The album is a mix of energetic acoustic guitar-driven numbers, imaginative pieces for orchestra and vocals and choral works. As you would expect from an album created during the lockdown, there’s an ever-present apprehension, but also hope. As fascinating as this music is, you will want to skip track seven – a found-sound collage on which Herrera does not appear – which contains PTSD-inducing samples of social engineering run hideously amok, a 2020 artifact best buried forever.

The first track is La Creación de las Aves, Vinicius Gomes’ circling, nimbly fingerpicked  acoustic guitar loop anchored by Jeffrey Zeigler’s sweeping cello and Gonzalo Grau’s lithely understated cajon.

Tree of 40 Fruit begins as an uneasily close-harmonied soundscape, layers of wordless vocals by Constellation Chor‘s Marisa Michelson blended with a little crowd-sourced spoken word on themes of isolation and alienation. She quickly builds it to an anguished series of peaks: the effect of all the multitracks wipes away any sense of loneliness or abandonment.

Clarinetist Kinan Azmeh joins with guitarist Romero Lubambo for moody but energetic dynamics in Rojo Sol, a bristling, flamenco-tinged ballad. Alma Muerta, a choral collaboration with Ensemble Sjaella rises from a desolate, Gregorian chant-influenced atmosphere to a web of stricken, shocked operatic riffs.

With her broodingly impassioned vocalese, Herrera and the Orquesta Sinfónica de Minería reinvent the album’s title cut – a Dizzy Gillespie hit – as a shapeshifting mini-suite, moving from cumulo-nimbus orchestration to a delicately bouncy, balletesque rhythm.

Ensemble Sjaella return for Fratres, by Paola Prestini, Herrera and the choir moving uneasily between early Renaissance-flavored ornamentation, grey-sky ambience and tremoloing atmospherics.

The lush treble counterpoint of Prestini’s Thrush Song, sung by the Young People’s Chorus of New York City, offers a glimpse of hope. Herrera and her Mexican orchestral colleagues wind up the album with a strikingly stark, gracefully rhythmic take of Cucurrucucú, a longing-infused ballad made famous by Mexican singer Ana María González in 1954.

Sarah McQuaid’s Starkly Lyrical New Live Album Captures a Dark Zeitgeist

Songwriter Sarah McQuaid was into the early part of a marathon 2020 tour when live music was criminalized throughout most of the world. Since she’d planned on making a live album while on the road, she made one closer to home, solo acoustic in the charming, medieval Cornwall church where she sings in a choir. The result is the vinyl record The St Buryan Sessions, streaming at Bandcamp. McQuaid has made a lot of good, darkly pensive albums over the years and this might be the best of them all, a quasi greatest hits collection that promises to have lasting historical resonance, capturing the zeitgeist of a moment that the world would rather never revisit.

Even the guarded, seductive optimism of What Are We Going to Do, in the stark solo electric version here, is far more muted than the original. The record is notable right off the bat for having the only recording of McQuaid singing Sweetness and Pain – a troubled but ultimately hopeful, plainchant-inspired mini-suite – as a contiguous whole. She does that a-cappella, taking advantage of the church’s rich natural reverb and what could be more than a two-second decay.

That reverb also enhances both McQuaid’s guitar and piano work. There’s a similarly resolute sense of hope through dark times in the second song, The Sun Goes On Rising. McQuaid’s voice is strong anyway, and here she reaches back for power to match the anxiousness and uncertainty.

If We Dig Any Deeper It Could Get Dangerous – what a song title for the fall of 2021, right? – brings to mind Richard Thompson‘s solo acoustic work, McQuaid starkly fingerpicking an enigmatic blues behind her loaded imagery. For the record, the vocal harmonies are live loops.

She switches to piano for The Silence Above Us, a brooding, slow, nocturnal waltz which seems practically prophetic, considering the events of 2020. One Sparrow Down is an understatedly grim little swing tune about a cat-and-bird game, McQuaid backing herself with just a kickdrum.

The sparkling open-tuned guitar melody of Charlie’s Gone Home, one of McQuaid’s earliest songs, contrasts with the elegaic narrative. The rainy-day jazz guitar backdrop dovetails more closely with the volcanic portents of Yellowstone, McQuaid capping it off with a slashing flourish.

Time to Love is the sparest, most hypnotic number here and makes a good segue with her similarly sparse cover of Autumn Leaves where she really airs out her upper register. Live vocal loops enhance the somber reflections on mass mortality that pervade In Derby Cathedral: yesterday the church crypt, tomorrow the world.

McQuaid loves open tunings, best exemplified by her eerily echoing, chiming, increasingly macabre phrasing over an ominously swooping bassline in the instrumental The Day of Wrath, That Day. She keeps the subdued atmosphere going in, the pall lifting a little in The Tug of the Moon.

She returns to piano, adding gravitas to Michael Chapman’s Rabbit Hills, pulling it closer toward pastoral Pink Floyd territory. The closing number, Last Song is a requiem for McQuaid’s mom – a musician herself – and a reflection on the enduring strength of intergenerational traditions.

Acoustic Reggae and Similar Rarities by a Fixture of the NYC Parks Concert Circuit on the Upper East

Other than Bob Marley’s iconic Redemption Song – “How long must they kill our brothers while we stand aside and look?” – there’s hardly any acoustic reggae. In fourteen and a half years of concerts in what was once the live music capitol of North America, this blog and its predecessor covered exactly one acoustic reggae show, by Jamaican toaster I-Wayne. And that was a private performance for media, in the fall of 2011 in a west side studio with ganja smoke seeping out through cracks in the door.

But if you’re in Manhattan on Oct 29 and you can get to Second Avenue and 90th St. by 3 PM, you might see some acoustic reggae when ukulele player Dahlia Dumont and her group the Blue Dahlia play Ruppert Park.

Dumont has been plugged into the municipal concert circuit for the past several years, and her passion for reggae and ska matches her fondness for playing outdoors. She writes in English and her native French, in lots of other styles ranging from French varietés pop to Balkan music. Her most recent, characteristically eclectic album La Tradition Américaine got the thumbs up here in 2018.

She’s put out more material since that record, streaming at her music page. At the top, there’s Betty, a characteristically bouncy, horn-spiced quasi-ska song encouraging everybody to stop complaining about the status quo and police brutality, and go out and vote. En Dehors du Temps (Outside of Time) is a lot quieter, a wistfully waltzing familial reminiscence. Dumont recorded The Walls during the 2020 lockdown, an understatedly angst-fueled piano ballad about a relationship interrupted by fascist travel restrictions. “If we make it to the other side, will you be much changed?” she asks, speaking for as many people as Marley did with Redemption Song.

Nobody at this blog has ever caught a full set by Dumont. The closest was about the last twenty minutes of a show where she squeezed a good-sized band, including guitar, accordion and rhythm section, into an intimate Park Slope space a few months before the album came out. Dumont has also been a fixture at the annual late-November outdoor music festival that ran down Broadway from Dante Park across from Lincoln Center down to Columbus Circle. She brought a stripped-down trio to those shows, as she most likely will do at the Upper East Side park gig. She has an expressive voice, boundless energy and a sense of humor, all things we all could use right now.

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 enigmatic, 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.