New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Category: chamber pop

Funny and Troubling Songs For a Funny and Troubling Time

Good things come in fours today: here’s a mini-playlist of videos and streams to get your synapses firing on all cylinders

The woman who brought you the devious Tina Turner parody What’s Math Got to Do With It, singer/sax player Stephanie Chou has a provocatively philosophical new single, Continuum Hypothesis. It’s sort of art-rock, sort of jazz – a catchy, dancing, anthemic duo with pianist Jason Yeager, dedicated to mathematician Paul Cohen. According to this hypothesis, there is no set whose cardinality is strictly between that of the integers and the real numbers. This seems self-evident, but, based on Cohen’s work in set theory, Chou sees it as essentially unknowable, at least with what we know now. Snag a free download at Lions with Wings’ Bandcamp page while you can.

Here’s Erik Della Penna – the guitar half of erudite, lyrical superduo Kill Henry Sugar with drummer Dean Sharenow – doing a very, very subtle, rustically shuffling, Dylanesque acoustic protest song, Change the Weather:

I’m gonna make predictions
I’m gonna make it rain
I’m gonna put restrictions
On hearing you complain…
I’m gonna change the language
To make you change your mind
I’m gonna make predictions
That you can get behind

Swedish songwriter Moneira a.k.a. Daniela Dahl has a new single, The Bird (Interesting to See) It’s almost eight minutes of minimalist, anthemic art-rock piano and mellotron vibes, an oblique memoir of a troubled childhood, “a bird trapped in an open cage.” Sound familiar?

Natalia Lafourcade sings a slow, plush, epic take of the brooding Argentine suicide ballad Alfonsina y El Mar with Ljova orchestrating himself as a one-man string ensemble with his fadolin multitracks. You’d never know it was just one guy.

A Broodingly Direct, Terse, Haunting Art-Rock Suite From Cattivo

Is Israeli art-rock duo Cattivo’s haunting, phantasmagorical album Le Marchand De Rêve a lockdown parable, in terms of the bill of goods the lockdowners tried to sell us, even as one rationale after another was debunked and collapsed under the weight of its own lies?

Probably not, actually: the two musicians recorded it before the lockdown, so it’s more likely a tale of personal betrayal. But it’s definitely an album for our time, and it’s up at Bandcamp. Omer Farkash plays guitar and organ and sings in a girl-down-the-well voice. Udi Berner contributes viola, piano, theremin, organ and glockenspiel.

They open with a drifting, point-of-no-return intro and then pace gloomily through the title track, a stately minor-key theme, Farkash’s guitar playing steady, funereal broken chords over a somber haze of keyboard-and-viola orchestration.

Berner plays mostly solo on piano through a triptych of somber preludes: the miniature Avec Sa Jambe De Statu, the Le Grand Parcours Solitaire – how’s that for a a title for the year 2020 – and finally, a more emphatic yet spacious conclusion, Tu Vois Je N’ai Rien Oublié. The album winds up with a final variation with funeral organ and quavery viola.

A Surreal, Lushly Eclectic Live Album From Susanne Sundfor

The fourth track on today’s album features a duel between Greg Leisz’s pedal steel and André Roligheten’s sax – in a pensive chamber pop piano ballad.

Sung in English by a Norwegian songwriter. WTF?

In this century, stylistically, music is up for grabs. If a Brooklyn psychedelic cumbia band can get press here, Susanne Sundfor deserves to make the front page too. That particular song, Good Luck Bad Luck, is from People in Trouble: Live From the Barbican, streaming at youtube. You can start your playlist with track number three, Reincarnation, a loping, western-flavored country song that winds down to almost four minutes of desolate steel.

This is why live music – where it’s legal, anyway – is worth the hassle of leaving the house and putting down the magic rectangle for an hour or so. Sundfor stretches from New Mexico C&W to pensive piano balladry to dark folk, as exemplified by the album’s centerpiece, The Sound of War. “Leave all the silverware ‘cos you won’t need it there…just pawn the china…leave this ghost town before they burn it down” she warns. Bass player Frans Petter Eldh detunes and leaves his axe feeding into the PA; eventually a tightly pulsing intensity emerges.

“You take the pain, I take the fear, was the Devil a good negotiator?” Sundfor asks in Bedtime Story, a hazy psych-pop ballad with echoey Rhodes piano and a pensive clarinet solo by Jesse Chandler. Skip the seventh track: it’s a pop song with a pointless bass solo (which bass solos usually are). You can pick up with No One Believes in Love Anymore, arguably the album’s catchiest tune, with an aptly lush outro.

The album’s best and most disorienting track is The Golden Age, an Amanda Palmer-like waltz, interrupted. Sundfor winds up the record – and presumably, the concert – with Mountaineers, an echoey, possibly very metaphorical, orchestral take on Stereolab.

For those who refuse to listen to reason and insist on hearing tracks one, two and seven, be aware that there is a “moon-june” rhyme in the second one. For real. Sundfor gets a pass this time around because she’s not a native English speaker.

Thoughtful, Tuneful Pastoral Sounds From Andrew Rowan and Steven van Betten

Andrew Rowan and Steven van Betten have an attractively melancholy, bucolic chamber pop album, No Branches Without Trees. streaming at Bandcamp. Fans of the quiet side of Elliott Smith, or the early BeeGees, should check this out.

They open with Calico Basin, a wistful pastoral theme for strings. piano and glockenspiel God Given Beauty wouldn’t be out of place on Nick Drake’s first album, although this has more somber orchestration that blends with Rowan’s stark reed organ. The album’s title track is a wistful waltz, strings wafting starkly over van Betten’s delicately fingerpicked guitar.

“Have no fear when they come for you,” is the refrain in the Radiohead-tinged Little Boy: words to aspire to in an era of trace-and-track.

A quaint, fleeting string theme introduces Mining Claim, a brooding waltz that strongly brings to mind Philip Glass’ Dracula score. The narrative for Herrman, set to plaintive strings and guitar, is hauntingly allusive: it appears this Dutch gradeschooler survived the Holocaust, but his siblings may be another story. The album winds up on a similar note with Last Walk Through the Desert: as the strings flutter and shiver, does this guy ever make it out?

Moody, Enveloping, Purposeful Girl-Down-the-Well Sounds From Caitlin Pasko

Caitlin Pasko plays minimalist, pensive parlor pop songs and sings in a nebulous high soprano. An economy of notes is her thing. Her new solo album Greenhouse – streaming at Bandcamp – is sardonically titled. There’s nothing verdant about her alternately hazy and icy keyboard textures or her moody vocals. On one hand, this often comes across as one long song, with a relentlessly suffocating, claustrophobic feel. On the other, Pasko really owns that sound. Fans of Julee Cruise will love this.

She opens the record with the minimalist, rhythmic piano chords and enigmatic, close-harmonied vocals of I Know I: “I can’t trust my emotions,” Pasko reflects, “Because my skin crawls.”

Pasko reaches for her airy uppermost registers in Unwell as a drone looms in and wafts above her steady chords. She switches to electric piano for Even God. “I’m stuck in death,” she half-whispers, again and again, eventually shifting back to piano and then a low Rhodes rumble at the end. Definitely a lockdown moment!

Horrible Person is probably the most succinct kiss-off song ever written, and it’s actually very funny. Over lingering, Eno-esque atmospherics, Pasko doesn’t waste either notes or words. The simple instrumental Ooo Happy introduces To the Leaves, which seems to be a tenative stab at happiness…or merely escape.

She gets back on her feet – literally – in the next song, Mother: Pasko’s images of abandonment and alienation pack a quiet wallop. “You are lake and you’re still as glass,” she muses enigmatically in Quiet Weather: it seems to be a paradoxical love song. Pasko closes the album with Intimate Distance, the closest thing to a straightforward pop ballad, or for that matter any kind of closure. A cynic would say that any second-year piano student could play the whole record from beginning to end, but Pasko’s commitment to maintaining a mood and resisting the urge to go fulllblown orchestral is pretty remarkable.

 

Catchy, Thoughtful Rainy-Day Sounds From Modern Nature

Modern Nature play a tuneful, individualistic blend of pastoral jazz and chamber pop with tinges of vintage 70s soul music. Their new album Annual is streaming at Bandcamp. They like nature imagery and long, catchy, circling phrases over simple, muted drums.

They open the record with Dawn, a hazy miniature balancing bandleader Jack Cooper’s uneasy, lingering guitar over Arnulf Lindner’s overtone-laden bass drone. Elegantly uneasy soul guitar anchors frontwoman Kayla Cohen’s muted, half-whispered delivery as Flourish gets imderway, up to a big, anthemic chorus with Jeff Tobias’ fluttery sax and then back down. From there they segue into Mayday, which has a funkier swing but is just as hypnotically circling.

Spacious, incisive piano and balmy sax mingle with syncopated guitar jangle throughout the album’s fourth track, Halo. In Harvest, the band build very subtle variations into a staggered, loopy hook. They bring the record full circle with Wynter. “Outside the trees are groaning,” Cohen sings with an airy calm over the resonant, brooding clang of the guitar. Let’s hope the lockdown doesn’t destroy this band as it has so many others, and we get to hear more from them.

Intriguingly Moody, Individualistic Piano Instrumentals From Alexandra Stréliski

On her album Inscape – streaming at Bandcamp – Montreal pianist Alexandra Stréliski plays wistful chamber pop songs without words, often multitracking herself for textural contrasts. This kind of thing has been done before, although stylistically Streliski is much more classically oriented than early rock keyboard instrumentalists like Floyd Cramer. She sometimes uses folky guitar voicings; her songs can be very catchy. Catchy enough to became a gold record on her home turf – if this is what gold records were in 2020, it’s a good omen.

The opening number, Plus Tôt (meaning “soon”) hints at where she’s going to go later in the album, but this folk-pop theme, with its steady triplets, doesn’t move far from one place and isn’t one of her strongest numbers. You can start your playlist – and hum along – with The Quiet Voice, a gently strolling pastoral pop tune.

Par le Fenêtre de Theo (Through Theo’s Window) is where Streliski really puts the rubber to the road: it’s a big, melancholy rainy-day anthem in classical disguise. In Ellipse, she maintains the pensive ambience more spaciously, with light electronic touches. Then she goes back to terse, moody folk-pop with the waltz Changing Winds.

The simply titled Interlude is a study in persistent, loopy minimalism. Blind Vision has a recurrent reference to the Exorcist Theme, but it’s more just plain sad than creepy. The subtle variations of Burnout Fugue – great title, huh? – have a surprising, intricately rippling energy and precision,

As she often does here, she moves a simple bassline around beneath elegant broken chords, tersely emphatic riffs and a Beatles quote in Overturn, the album’s longest track. She closes the record with the more pop-themed Revient le Jour (Daylight Comes Once More) and then Materials, a robotic attempt at glitchy electronic sounds. Other than that, somewhere there’s an arthouse movie director who needs music like this.

Thoughtful, Sparkling Poetically-Inspired Chamber Jazz From Amanda Tosoff

Pianist Amanda Tosoff plays an eclectic, poetically-inspired blend of jazz and chamber pop, Her new album Earth Voices is streaming at Bandcamp. She’s collected a similarly diverse crew of voices to sing her songs, everybody seemingly chosen specifically for each one. 

Emilie-Claire Barlow sings energetically in A Dream Within a Dream over a a vampy latin-tinged groove that’s about as far from the classically-tinged phantasmagoria of the Alan Parsons Project’s earlier take on Edgar Allan Poe as you can possibly imagine. Kelly Jefferson’s spiraling soprano sax ironically adds a welcome, disquieted edge over the brightness.

Robin Dann moves to the mic for a low-key take of the Pablo Neruda text of Tosoff’s Sonnet 49, her elegant. tersely rippling piano bolstered by Aline Homzy’s violin and Beth Silver’s cello.

Here and Heaven, originaly recorded by Yo-Yo Ma’s Goat Rodeo Americana project, opens with a stark violin solo over Morgan Childs’ shamanic drums and Jon Maharaj’s terse bass. Michelle Willis and Alex Samaras’ vocal duet recalls the original pairing of Aoife O’Dononvan and Chris Thile; guitarist Alex Goodman adds a spikily joyous postbop intensity.

Samaras takes over vocals for Birdwings, Tosoff’s pensively rippling, lyrical setting of a Rumi poem. Laila Biali joins him to sing Oh, Life, a remake of a Mike Ross number from a theatrical production of Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology, where a girl emerges from her coffin to serenade the crowd. Tosoff’s baroque-tinged piano circles as the string quartet behind her slowly follows a long upward trajectory to another soulful Goodman solo.

Joni Mitchell’s antiwar anthem The Fiddle and the Drum, sung with stern intensity by Lydia Persaud, gets a sobering, emphatic reinterpretation but also an expansive, optimistic Tosoff solo. Felicity Williams sings To a Stranger, Tosoff’s setting of a Walt Whitman text over a vividly poignant string quartet arrangement. They bring the album full circle with Barlow resolutely singing another Tosoff original, Finis, built around a Marjorie Pickthall poem on a carpe diem theme.

Sweeping, Majestic Bosnian Noir From Amira Medunjanin and Trondheim Solistene

One of the most gorgeously haunting albums to come over the transom here in the last couple of years is Bosnian chanteuse Amira Medunjanin’s 2018 symphonic record Ascending with Norwegian string orchestra Trondheim Solistene, streaming at Spotify. A lot of these songs are popular staples of the Balkan repertoire, but they’ve seldom had as much towering, angst-fueled grandeur as Medunjanin and the ensemble give them here.

The first track, Gde Si Duso Gde Si Rano (Where Are You, Love) begins with a well-known, haunting blues riff from the strings. Medunjanin has never sung better, utilizing a plaintive rubato as the orchestra hold a mutedly fluttering minor-key resonance behind her. What a way to start the record.

Sve Pticice Zapjevale (All the Birds Were Singing) is just as haunting, Medunjanin’s tender, almost whispery voice over pizzicato violins and a velvety lushness behind that. The orchestra and piano pick up the pace dramatically and then hit a suspenseful lull in Oj Meglica (The Mist), a pillowy, bouncy, cabaret-tinged ballad.

Snijeg Pade Na Behar Na Voce is a dynamic, imaginatively orchestrated Romany  winter dance…with prepared piano and orchestra, and an epic sweep, and an elegantly fanged piano solo that put the many other versions out there to shame. The angst-fueled ballad Si Zaljubiv Edno Momce has a spare, windswept, moodily expectant atmosphere, with eerily tinkling piano, spare guitar and distant airiness.

Medunjanin’s version of Moj Dilbere has a slinky, Egyptian-tinged chromatic sweep anchored by the low strings. She and the ensemble begin Ja Izlezi Gjurgjo (Get Out, Gjurgjo) with a gentle, drifting ambience and shift toward more emphatic, joyously dancing territory.

They keep the sweep going in Êto Te Nema (Since You’ve Gone), rising back and forth longingly out of a terse acoustic guitar melody. Hearing the ecstatic Romany brass tune Ajde Jano Kolo Da Igramo done with a genteel pulse, a piano and a string section is a trip, but it works.

The album’s shortest number is Tiho Noci Moje Zlato Spava, a pensive guitar-and-strings instrumental lullaby. They bring the album full circle with Nestaces Iz Mog Ivota (You’re Going to Leave Me), with a conspiratorial, wee-hours piano ambience. Nobody knows the poignancy of living in the shadows like the Eastern Europeans.

So where the hell was this blog when the album came out? Back in 2018, New York Music Daily’s focus was live music in New York. Waiting for the moment Medunjanin would come back to town at a price the general public could afford proved to be futile. But we still have this record.

Lush, Thoughtful, String-Driven, Vastly Eclectic Tunesmithing From Alice Zawadzki

Singer/multi-instrumentalist Alice Zawadzki writes distinctive, individualistic songs that blend jazz, chamber pop, western classical sounds and occasional Korean influences. Her songs are on the slow side and typically take awhile to unwind. She likes atmospherics, has a mystical side and writes pensive, generally optimistic lyrics. Her lush, dynamically shifting album Within You is a World of Spring hit the web about a year and a half ago and is streaming at Spotify.

It opens with the title track, a blustery Asian flourish from the string section – Simmy Singh snd Laura Senior on violins, Lucy Nolan on viola  and Peggy Nolan on cello – quickly giving way to Zawadzki’s terse, modally vamping piano. It’s the missing link betwen Ghost in the Machine-era Police and Hissing of Summer Lawns-era Joni Mitchell. Rob Luft’s guitar adds enigmatic sear to the mix; bassist Misha Mullov-Abbado and drummer Fred Thomas take over the dancing drive from there. In her leaping, energetic soprano, Zawadzki sings this soaring encouragement to leave the dark side behind.

She goes even further up the scale, spare piano over lingering atmospherics in the second track, Gods Children, finally picking up with a spacious guitar solo over a slow, anthemic drive.

“Superior Virtue was my protection, and I could gaze over the abyss all day without falling,” she intones over the drone of the strings and the occasional piano flourish in the third track, Nolan’s viola soaring plaintively over a twinkling, balletesque pulse as the song gathers steam.

Zawadzki sings the bouncy love song Es Verdad expressively in Spanish, Thomas on tenor banjo throughout a surreal mashup of bluegrass and 1970s nueva cancion. The otherworldly melismas of Hyelim Kim’s Korean taegum flute to introduce The Woods, a mystical nighttime spoken-word forest tableau that builds to a twinkling waltz.

Keeper is the most straight-up rock anthem here, with triumphant, gospel-infused harmonies, a resonant guitar solo, dancing bass where least expected over steady Pink Floydian piano chords. Witchy strings come together over a trip-hop beat after an introduction that’s painful at high volume in Twisty Moon, a surreal mashup of soukous and circus rock. Zawadzki closes this fascinating and stunningly original album with O Mi Amore, a balmy ballad infused with spiky banjo accents.