New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Category: chamber pop

Soprano Meets Bass Reinvent Sephardic Treasures with Passion and Elegance

The new Sephardic Treasures album by the Soprano Meets Bass project – streaming at Spotify – is a gorgeous and expansive take on a very old idea. Classical ensembles have been appropriating ancient Jewish themes for centuries; this album is more eclectic, drawing on tango, flamenco and jazz as well. In general, the music is sleeker than you would expect from a klezmer or tango band playing this material. For those of us who don’t speak Ladino, singer Ana María Ruimonte gives the material much more clarity than most operatically-trained vocalists typically deliver. And she maintains power and edge through many of the melodies’ challenging, rapidfire melismas and ornaments.

This is a long, rewarding album: fifteen songs. Most of them are sad; kings typically do not fare well in them. Minor keys are everywhere, along with the occasional slashing Middle Eastern mode. Bandleader/bassist Alan Lewine puts on a master class in terse, purposeful solos, notably a triumphantly churning facsimile of flamenco guitar playing in a Romany-flavored anthem toward the end of the record.

Some of the songs have a full rhythm section, with Shai Wetzer on drums; others feature lighter percussion by Víctor Monge. Pianist Chano Domínguez, trumpeter Duane Eubanks, flutist Hadar Noiber,  Spanish guitarist Julián Vaquero and violinist Alicia Svigals all punch in purposefully, often with echoes of flamenco or the Balkans, when the vocals drop out, or in response to Ruimonte’s lyrical phrasing. She sings in character, whethe plaintive, pensive – or simply unable to keep a straight face, in a goofy nursery rhyme about a cat. That’s the album’s lone moment of comic relief.

In a handful of songs, she reaches for the rafters with arioso power, especially in a dancing, subtly shifting North African-influenced ballad. There are quieter songs and laments here as well, including one with a spare, hypnotic, almost Indian atmosphere, an almost completely rubato tableau, and a welcome departure into flamenco jazz. What a feast for fans of flamenco, klezmer and classical music alike

Deep Space Glimmer From Alicia Enstrom

Art-rock violinist Alicia Enstrom has a background in circus music. But on her most recent album Monsters (an anagram of her last name), she tackles immersive spacerock and chamber pop. Her lates single is Bardo Tide, a swirly, deep-space instrumental, which could be a backing track to a Julee Cruise hit from a David Lynch soundtrack. Kill the lights and enjoy.

Office Culture’s Cynical Frontman Gets Slightly More Organic

Winston Cook-Wilson a.k.a. Winston C.W. is the deadpan lounge lizard frontman and keyboardist of hilariously slick 80s pop parody band Office Culture – whose debut record you’ll see on the best albums of the year page here at the end of this month. He has a new album, Good Guess, out under his own name, streaming at Bandcamp. The music is a lot more stripped-down and less cynically plasticky than his main project, and maybe a little less insincere. Ward White at his most sardonic is a good point of comparison.

The album’s first track is Cakewalk, a slow, swaying, chiming, Debussy-esque piano pop ballad – with a characteristically cruel punchline. Guitarist Ryan Beckley does a good job emulating a horn with his volume knob as bassist Carmen Rothwell keeps a steady pulse.

Business is much the same, a stroll “past the trappings of defeat.”  As you might guess, the third track, Safety, is not about being safe at all, with its allusions to betrayal. The joke in Broken Drum is more musical rather than lyrical, the band gettting murky and rubato with some familiar “classic rock” riffs. “Maybe I look like someone who thrives for a minute in this brutal season, someone who forgets what it’s like to be that other guy,” Cook-Wilson muses innocently.

The sarcastically titled instrumental Swing Time is a slightly Lynchian stab at free jazz. The narrator of the increasingly creepy kiss-off ballad No Regrets is no less blithely callous than the characters in Cook-Wilson’s main band’s songs.

The album’s best story is Birds, an allusively grim narrative set to a cliched, saccharine 80s easy-listening pop backdrop. The abrasively trippy title track brings the record full circle, “a joyous day for a sad affair,” as Cook-Wilson puts it. For anyone who’s ever suffered through a retail dayjob where Lite FM plays on loop, this is sweet redemption.

Wild, Outside-the-Box Orchestral Reinventions of Steely Dan Favorites

Guitarist Andrew Green can shred with anyone, but he’s also a first-rate, imaginative composer and arranger. About ten years ago, he put out a deliciously shadowy album of original film noir-inspired pieces titled Narrow Margin. His latest record, Dime Dancing – streaming at Bandcamp – is an orchestral take on the Steely Dan catalog, both the hits and some deeper cuts. The charts are as playful and clever as the originals, and frontwoman Miriam Waks brings Donald Fagen’s allusively sinister, druggy lyrics into crystalline focus. Suddenly these songs make a lot of sense! What a treat for fans of the Dan.

They open with the radio staple Black Cow. This balmy neoclassical version picks up with the counterpoint between the oboe’s single-note lines – that’s either Dan Wieloszynski or Kenny Berger –  and the strings of violinist Meg Okura and cellist Jody Redhage. Frontwoman Miriam Waks sings it with a coy cynicism, then Green makes bluegrass out of it with some unexpectedly purist flatpicking.

Curto and Waks give Aja a hazy, languid atmosphere with rhythmic echoes of Steve Reich; is that percussionist Vince Cherico on tabla? And who knew that Any World That I’m Welcome To was such a wish song? Waks brings new depth to Fagen’s alienated hippie protagonist over jaunty, string-whipped salsa-rock, with a wry Spanish-language descarga at the end.

Green and Waks reinvent Reelin’ in the Years at what feels like quarterspeed, with enigmatic harmonies and a strikingly wounded vocal. Drummer Richie Barshay’s opening groove in Dirty Work is LMAO funny and too good to spoil – then the ensemble do the song as surprisingly straight-up, bubbly chamber pop with a spiraling, forro-inspired solo by accordionist Rob Curto..

They ease into Daddy Don’t Live in That New York City No More, reinventing it as a stark, disquieting, baroque-tinged acoustic waltz: Waks leaves no doubt about what happened to Daddy. The most obscure and least memorable track here, Everything You Did gets a strutting vaudevillian arrangement with muted trumpet. Green and crew wind up the record with a balmy, bittersweet, slowly enveloping take of Rikki Don’t Lose That Number. Unquestionably one of the most entertaining albums of the year.

An Eclectic, Colorful Single From Darkly Literary Rockers Lusterlit

Lit-rock superduo Lusterlit – guitarist Charlie Nieland and percussionist/keyboardist Susan Hwang – have a vinyl single, Meat Cake, that’s been kicking around here. Time to wipe off the dust and give it a spin, at Bandcamp if you want.

The band take the title from the well-known series by graphic novelist and artist Dame Darcy. One side of the record is Wax Wolf, which sounds like a shuffling, acoustic version of X, with a neat web of voices early on. This guy “gives new meaning to ‘one track mind.’”

Hwang sings the flip side, Cutting, a diptych that shifts from a slinky, hip-hop-influenced groove to glimmering, noirish art-rock, with a message of empowerment referencing feminists from Cleopatra to Frances Farmer.

A Prophetic, Elegaic Single From Simone White

Why did we wait
All the signs were there
We simply did not care

Simone White recorded her single Letter to the Last Generation, a lush piano-and-omnichord-driven waltz, before the lockdown. It seems to be a global warming cautionary tale, but it fits the darkest side of this era’s zeitgeist, the propagandized and terrorized marching in their muzzles into the jaws of a holocaust.

A Twisted, Phantasmagorical Memento From Knife Throwers Assistance

Today’s album is the one and only release by sprawling circus rock collective Knife Throwers Assistance. Not much remains of them on the web, other than a Bandcamp page where you can still get a free download of the live recording the haphazardly orchestrated, mostly-female band made at their final show. They liked lurid harmonies, contrapuntal vocals and unorthodox instrumentation – and their songs were pretty relentlessly creepy.

As that final gig began, the band took the stage to a weird sample collage: it’s almost nine minutes of random noise, mic checking and guitar tuning. You can start your playlist with Mr. Detective, a long, ominously vamping murder ballad. This time out the group included the founding duo of guitarist Eve Blackwater and pianist Heidi Harris; singers Bridget Rooney, Deb Zep (who also plays bass clarinet) and Tea Leigh; banjo players Christen Napier and Annie Levey; cellist Elizabeth Glushko; singing saw player Cara White; bassist Kevin Anderson and drummer Matthew Vander Ende.

The forlorn piano ballad Crow Cry sounds like Carol Lipnik trying her hand at trip-hop, with a really cool, ominously circling vocal arrangement. They follow with the ba-bump stripper theme That Cat, then Voodoo, a folk noir tune with ridiculous faux-southern vocals.

Somebody plays eerie, chromatic melodica behind the steady guitar and aching vocals (guessing that’s Deb Zep) in Freedom, a gospel-tinged tableau. “Meet me by the railroad, that’s where we mortgaged off our souls,” Blackwater musees in Second Repeater, a surreal roadtrip tale.

Hildegard You Have My Heart has all kinds of neat touches: flamenco-ish interludes, snarling cello glissandos and glockenspiel tinkling evilly as the song rises and falls. The singing saw and Levey’s flute flutter uneasily behind the insistant vocals of Unfair, then the band wind up the show, and their career, with Scarlet the Fire-Eater, a plaintive, Appalachian-tinged ballad.

The album also comes with lo-fi concert videos of Crow Cry and Mr. Detective from the band’s early days, the latter with a long, haphazard glockenspiel solo, singing saw and bass clarinet among the many other instruments gathered onstage.

Since the band’s demise, Blackwater continues as a solo artist and member of the Greenpoint Songwriters Exchange, who for the better part of a year put on similarly sprawling monthly shows at Pete’s Candy Store until the lockdown drove live music in New York underground.

A Richly Detailed, Psychedelic Layer Cake From Polish Rockers the White Kites

The White Kites‘ previous album Missing was a mix of spot-on 60s and 70s art-rock and psychedelia. Their latest release, Devillusion – streaming at Bandcamp – has more of a 70s vibe. David Bowie is the obvious reference point, with echoes of the Beatles, ELO and even Jethro Tull as well as artsy 90s bands like Pulp. The group’s playful sense of humor often masks a dark undercurrent. This is a long record, fourteen tracks of catchy, purist tunesmithing, outside-the-box sonics and strange interludes, best appreciated as a cohesive whole.

They open the album with Spinning Lizzie, a Bowie-esque take on funk, the guitars of Przemek Piłaciński and Bartek Woźniak flaring over the squiggles of Jakub Lenarczyk’s keys and bassist Marysia Białota’s overdubbed combo organ. Frontman Sean Palmer delivers a deadpan account of an increasingly thorny acid trip in the second track, Rather Odd over Lenarczyk’s stately piano and organ swirls

With its ba-bump noir cabaret phantasmagoria, Not a Brownie is just as surreal, especially with the spacy breakdown in the middle. Paweł Betley’s flute flits over drummer Jakub Tolak’s steady Penny Lane beat throughout the cheery Warsaw Summer. Frozen Heartland could be ELO in a particularly lush, wistful moment, circa 1977: “Come back!” is the mantra.

Rising from a blippy bounce to far more serious, Dragon is a knowing parable about the kind of big, unexpected payoff that you might encounter if you keep your mind open. The band go back to a carnivalesque pulse for the album’s fleeting title track, then blend pouncing Bowie rock with crazed atmospherics in Viral Spiral.

Białota’s Rhodes mingles uneasily with the simmering guitars in Blurred, a portrait of a superman which may have sarcastic political subtext. Ola Bilińska sings the miniature Mysteries in the Sky over a twinkling backdrop of electric piano and lush acoustic guitars. Then the band pick up the pace with QRMA, shifting between watery chorus-box-driven late Beatles and skittish glamrock.

Palmer intones an eco-disaster warning over a deep-space soundscape in Goodbye Gaia. Mother Mars is a logical segue, a broodingly waltzing art-rock anthem: if the White Kites got it right, we’re looking at Life on Mars, or bust. They wind up the album with the slow, immersive, guardedly hopeful ballad Fallen Star. The level of craft and subtle detail on this album is even more amazing considering how rock albums are made these days – and how few of them have been released this year.

Intriguing, Allusively Lyrical Violin Songs From Concetta Abbate

Violinist Concetta Abbate writes imaginatively detailed, concise chamber rock songs – when she’s not playing string quartets, or ambient music. She draws on a classical background as well as an immersion in the New York free improvisation scene. Some of the songs on her new album Mirror Touch – streaming at Bandcamp – bring to mind a higher-register Rasputina, or in more delicate moments, cello rocker Serena Jost or the Real Vocal String Quartet. Much of this material is through-composed: Abbate doesn’t typically repeat herself or stay in one place for very long. She also uses pizzicato as much as she bows: this music has plenty of bounce and groove.

The album title refers to mirror-touch synesthesia, where an individual physically feels a physical reaction when another person is touched (many consider it extrasensory perception). The first song, Creatures, is a diptych, its elegantly vamping, swaying baroque pop shifting to a triumphant, emphatic conclusion. Abbate’s search for solid ground amid the relentless uncertainty of gentification-era New York becomes a rare success story.

She leaps to the top of her expressive high soprano in the precise cadences of the Renaissance-flavored miniature Madrigal. Then she matches a gentle but resolute vocal to more baroque-tinged, acerbically leaping violin riffage in Lavender, drummer Ben Engel artfully handling the subtle rhythmic shifts.

The jaunty latin jazz pulse of September, spiced with Charlie Rauh’s guitar and Abbate’s resonant lines on the low strings of her five-string model contrasts with the song’s troubled lyrics. Sunlight, an instrumental with wordless vocals, slowly coalesces toward Bach out of carefree, leaping phrases; then the energy picks up again.

Building has delicate pizzicato that shifts into ambience and one of Abbate’s most acerbically loaded lyrics:

Notebooks upon notebooks
Cost more than I make
Face upon illusion
Give and take
Will they discover me
Will I be found out

Hazy harmonics from both violin and Vasko Dukovski’s bass clarinet provide a surreal backdrop for the warmly inviting vocals of Overflow. The album’s funniest, most playful number is Mis, an instrumental duet between Dukovski and flutist Leanne Friedman.

Abbate returns to a more broodingly poetic atmosphere with Bit of Rain, which has hints of both trip-hop and 20th century minimalism. She follows that with the album’s most hypnotically circling number, Secrets

Worlds, a solo instrumental for violin and vocals, follows a disquieted path through riffage that evokes Ligeti, Bartok, and also Celtic music. Abbate concludes with the benedictory diptych Forgetful, an apt way to close this fresh, verdant, allusively intriguing album.

Lavish, Imaginatively Arranged, Individualistic Ballads From Le Mirifique Orchestra

Le Mirifique Orchestra play lush, vast, majestically arranged ballads from the worlds of jazz standards, classic chanson and pop music. The arrangements on their new album Oh! My Love – streaming at Bandcamp – draw on classical styles from the baroque to the 21st century, emphasis on the modern. It’s an absolutely unique, imaginative sound, with jazz solos, classical lustre and catchy, relatively short songs. The group like playful instrumental intros, and have six strong singers taking turns out front.

The orchestra open the record with calmly spacious minimalism and then make their way into the first song, Skylark, sung with soaring, vintage soul-infused hopefulness by Agathe Peyrat. With orchestration that spans the sonic spectrum, from Thomas Saulet’s flute and Nicolas Fargeix’s clarinet down to Jérémie Dufort’s tuba, the song sets the stage for the rest of the record.

Co-leader Alban Darche’s judicious sax flurries over Alexis Thérain’s bittersweet guitar chords introduce Don’t Explain, then back away for Alice Lewis’ similarly pensive vocals. The swirl of the reeds against the resonance of trumpeter Rodolph Puechbroussous and horn players Pierre-Yves Le Masne and Emmanuel Bénèche maintain an uneasy dichotomy over drummer Meivelyan Jacquot’s muted sway.

Chloé Cailleton moves to the mic for the wistful You Can Never Hold Back Spring, the orchestra shifting between terse lustre and bubbling optimism. After a coyly shapeshifting intro, crooner Loïs Le Van takes over the lead on Parce que je t’aime, the ensemble moving from a subtle fugue to bright pageantry and back.

After a suspensefully flurrying guitar-and-drums interlude, the strings of Le Quatuor Psophos add lushness to the moody, often rather troubled instrumental Answer Me. Darche opens Je crois entendre with a balmy solo, then Philippe Katerine offers a gentle vocal over a contrastingly brooding, tense backdrop.

The string quartet return for My Love, foreshadowing the album’s title track with disquieting close harmonies and dynamic shifts. Cailleton takes over vocals again in a hazily brassy take of I’ll Be Seeing You, the high reeds rising to a balletesque peak.

Lewis goes back to the mic with a moody understatement for the haunting Celian’s Complaint, guest trumpeter Geoffroy Tamisier winding it up with a desolate solo: it’s the high point of the album. The similarly somber, mysterious narrative Et pour autant qu’il m’en souvienne makes a good segue, Le Van’s sober spoken word set to spare, possibly improvised verses before the angst-fueled chorus kicks in. Thomas de Pourquery sings the title cut to close the album on a pensively pillowy note.