New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Category: indie pop

Celebrating One of Manhattan’s Most Fearless Impresarios at the Borough’s Best Listening Room

There aren’t many venues left anywhere in New York where you can walk in on just about any show night and randomly discover a great new band or solo artist. But you can still do that at the American Folk Art Museum. The museum earned this blog’s award for Best Manhattan Venue a couple of years ago, largely because of impresario Lara Ewen, who brings in a wildly diverse and frequently excellent mix of global folk styles along with Americana and singer-songwriters.

Ewen is turning fifty this June 14, and an all-star cast (she isn’t saying who, just yet) are on tap to come out to celebrate at her mostly-weekly Free Music Fridays series at the museum starting at 5:30 PM. Ewen’s booking (and her songwriting) reflect her background growing up in working-class, multicultural Queens. Three recent discoveries there – for this blog, at least – reflect Ewen’s ferocious dedication to bringing in music that represents the real New York.

In his debut at the museum this past spring, Greg Connors played electric guitar – not something you’d expect at a venue originally know for folk music, but Ewen likes to defy the odds. He ran his axe through a pedalboard with a lot of effects, flinging chords out into the space’s natural reverb and building to stomping, singalong choruses. His lyrics are edgy and cynical; his songs tell brooding stories set among the down-and-out without being cliched. His tantalizingly short set, clocking in at just over a half an hour, reminded of 90s underground songwriting stars Matt Keating or Jim Allen from time to time. If Connors had been around back then, he probably would have been playing CB’s Gallery and Sin-e and the rest of the East Village songwriter venues, all of them gone in a blitzkrieg of gentrification and real estate bubble madness. Connors hangs his hat in Peekskill now – he was awestruck at how attentively the audience at the museum responded, considering that he’s used to singing over crowds of drunks.

In her museum debut a week later, Ruby Landen explored several more traditional folk styles, from Appalachian-flavored balladry to French chanson. Her spare, elegant, eclectic guitar fingerpicking matched her low-key, purposefully plaintive vocals. She’s a relative newcomer to the New York Americana scene, so at the time of her show there was little on the web about her beyond a couple of youtube videos. But Ewen books a lot of good up-and-coming artists regardless of how little-known they are.

Another individualistic artist who’s just getting started and made her debut there last month is Yurby, who has even less of a presence online. There’s nobody in New York who sounds anything like her. Backed for most of her show by a bluesy, jazz-influenced electric guitar, she showed off a disarmingly clear, pure soul voice throughout a catchy mix of slowly unwinding ballads. Once in awhile there’d be a hint of a latin Caribbean influence, but otherwise, it wouldn’t be fair to pigeonhole her as neosoul. And her lyrics deal with empowerment and fighting injustice as much as the usual battle of the sexes. At the end of her set, she treated the crowd to one of those anthems, in Spanish.

Who knows – it wouldn’t be a stretch to see all three of these artists at Ewen’s birthday party. And maybe Ewen herself will treat the crowd to a few numbers – she won’t admit it, but she has one of the most magically mutable voices in town.

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.

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.

The New Tarot Bring a New Spin on Old Sounds to Wiliamsburg Tonight

The New Tarot look back to the plush, synth-heavy pop of the 80s and the trip-hop of the 90s, but with better tunesmithing than you would have found in either of those styles back then. Their latest album Book of Promises is streaming at Soundcloud, and they have a show tonight, March 2 at 10 PM at the Knitting Factory; general admission is $10. There’s no L train this weekend, as usual, but the G is running and so is the 7 in case you’re coming from Manhattan or Queens and need to make a connection.

The album’s opening track, Kingdom is mostly instrumental, an art-rock tone poem set to a quasi-Middle Eastern beat over Karen Walker’s atmospheric keyboards and a string section comprising Bela Horvath on violin, Caroline Johnston on viola and Rubin Khodeli on cello. It segues into the gospel-flavored Angel, Beth Callen’s guitar flickering amid the lush wash of keys and strings.

Singer Monka Walker’s vocals echo over a hypnotic trip-hop backdrop and techy 80s goth keys  in The Skinny; the faux oldtimey swing interlude toward the end, sung through a vocoder, is coyly amusing.

Bassist Dave Kahn and drummer Chas Langston give the simple, catchy Name a steady pulse behind the swooshy sonics. The group get political with some unexpectedly fierce hip-hop lyrics in The Heat, referencing the Newtown massacre and Trump’s border wall, among other atrocities: “Isn’t it time we traded oil for water?” Monika Walker asks pointedly, “Land of the free, home of diabetes!”

“Lonely day is done,” is the mantra in Hello, an unexpectedly successful mashup of Americana and 90s trip-hop. Run Run Run is not the Velvets classic but an original that finally picks up steam, tumbling away from glitchy 90s beats; the elegant string outro is a nice touch.

The Ruse has a glossy 80s disco sheen in the same vein as ABC or the Human League. Alaska is a stab at a more brooding atmosphere that brings in elements of corporate urban pop. “I’m so ignorant and self-assured, I know nothing, I just want more,” Monika Walker sings over a sarcastically jaunty swing groove on the album’s last track i jaunty swing tune, America, “The nation of deja vu.”

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.

Mara Connor Brings Broodingly Catchy Tunes Back to Her Old Williamsburg Haunts

Mara Connor brought a catchy mix of subtly slashing, Americana-flavored songs along with other material and a talented Los Angeles-based band, making their New York debut on her old South Williamsburg turf at Baby’s All Right last night. Connor has a purist janglerock sense for catchy hooks and occasionally stinging lyrics: Jessie Kilguss is a good point of comparison. It’s a fair guess Connor has southern roots – there’s a twang in that voice, and a friendliness, Brooklyn soujourn or not. She now calls the left coast home after leaving the South 11th Street apartment she’d shared with a roommate, who was part of what appeared to be a sold-out crowd.

Too bad Connor’s acoustic guitar wasn’t in the mix for the first and best number of the night, No Fun. It wasn’t the iconic Stooges song – it’s the distantly noir-tinged, woundedly evocative new single from Connor’s forthcoming debut album. And it didn’t come together until the chorus kicked in and her lead guitarist hit his distortion pedal. Lana Del Rey, if you still haven’t gone off to where memes go to die, eat your heart out to this.

From there, it wasn’t all downhill. Connor’s originals were strong, as was one of the covers. That choice spoke volumes: an obscure, quietly scathing, gently circling Britfolk narrative, Fools Run the Game (was it Sandy Denny who did it the first time around?).

Connor followed the hit single with a brooding, world-weary, reflective freeway tableau – Los Angeles will make you world-weary by thirty, no doubt. After a lowlit, downcast reflection on an ill-fated fling with a dissolute older guy here, she played a deliciously venomous kiss-off to a sensitive artist type who turns out to be just the opposite. As Mary Lee Kortes once said, “Never mess with a songwriter: we always get even in the end.”

Connor sings in a supple, subtle mezzo-soprano with more than a hint of bite. But when she goes up the scale, she strains. Having made her album at a famous corporate Nashville studio, there may have been people around her who pushed her to do something she’s not really comfortable with right now. There’s a duet with Langhorne Slim on the forthcoming record; choosing instead to play the song live with the girlyboy who’s arguably the wimpiest songwriter to come out of New York in the last twenty years was a big mistake. Is Lach still kicking around? That would have been an improvement.

What’s the future for artists like Connor? Her songs are catchy and memorable: you feel like you’ve lived in them. But until the corporate dinosaurs die off and the stadiums where they play revert to the public who financed them, singer-songwriters are going to have to make do with touring the City Wineries of the world, hawking t-shirts and vinyl (because that’s the only recorded music format left that can be monetized) at the merch table and Bandcamp, and maybe getting lucky with a movie placement or two.  Here’s wishing all that to Mara Connor.

An Intimate Lower East Side Gig by Haunting Art-Rock Songwriter Joanna Wallfisch

There are two kinds of road songs. The more common ones celebrate freedom, the other celebrate escape. The second track on singer/multi-instrumentalist Joanna Wallfisch’s most recent album Blood & Bone – streaming at Bandcamp – is the other kind. It’s a chillingly propulsive narrative inspired by her 2016 California tour, which she made by bike.

I change my background story
Every time somebody asks
I have worn so many masks…
Winding down the windows
Letting in in the breeze
Breathing in the ashes
Of burning redwood trees
Time moves parallel to motion
It’s a traveler’s disease
We are all escapees

Wallfisch is playing the small room at the Rockwood on Jan 4 at 9 PM, an intimate opportunity to get to know her often slashingly lyrical, individualistic mix of majestic orchestrated rock, elegant parlor pop and jazz.

Jess Elder’s tinkling piano mingles with Wallfisch’s delicate uke and Kenneth Salters’ atmospheric cymbal washes in the album’s optimistic opening ballad, The Ship. Over swooshy organ and surreal electric piano, Wallfisch unleashes years’ worth of pent-up venom in The Shadow of Your Ghost, one of the alltime great kiss-off anthems. “You counted every moment that we spent, like a poor man counts each miserable cent,” she sings with a misty regret – and it only gets better from there. Elder’s titanic organ solo is one of the album’s high points.

The lush sweep of the towering seduction anthem Dandelions, awash in starry keyboard textures, is vastly more optimistic. The brooding counterpoint of the Solar String Quartet float above Elder’s circular, minimalist piano riffs in Anymore, a terse, bitter breakup ballad. The album’s catchiest song, capped off by an ornately gritty glamrock guitar solo by Elias Meister, is Lullaby Girl, which could be peak-era mid-70s ELO. Wallfisch’s allusively imagistic portrait of an unnamed musician’s grimly elusive search for some kind of inner peace packs a wallop.

‘In Runaway Child, Wallfisch builds a coyly detailed, Tamara Hey-esque tale of breaking free,over the boleroish pulse of Pablo Menares’ bass and Elder’s calypsonian toy piano. The group follow the starry, wistful piano-and-cello ballad Summer Solstice with Choices, a chromatically bristling, cabaret-tinged 6/8 anthem. Imagine Linda Thompson fronting Procol Harum: “The witching hour closes in fast…by dancing in circles, we’ll end up in flames.”

The hushed Solitude in a Song – Wallfisch sharing some surprising insights into how she writes – is the album’s most minimalist track. She goes back to cabaret-rock with The Truth, an anxious, brief mellotron-and-piano number. The album’s most traditional, commercial number is Bo Ba Bo; Wallfisch brings it full circle with the title track, Blood and Bone, a dancing, waltzing, Mozartean parlor pop number. Wallfisch deserves to be vastly better known than she is.

No-No Boy Bring Their Fascinating, Harrowing, Catchy Songs of Japanese-American Incarceration to Lincoln Center

In one of the more ugly chapters in American history, beginning in 1942 almost 130,000 Japanese-Americans were seized without trial and subsequently imprisoned in a total of ten concentration camps, mostly in the western states. Most of those individuals were American citizens. Virtually all of them, instructed to leave their homes behind with only what they could carry with them, would spend the entirety of World War II imprisoned.

The “no-no boys,” as concentration camp staff first called them, refused to swear allegiance to the United States or serve in the military, which makes sense considering that virtually all of these men had family and relatives were were imprisoned along with them. With their debut album, 1942 – streaming at Bandcamp – elegantly tuneful rock band No-No Boy bring the chilling, powerfully relevant history of that era to life. They’re playing the atrium space at Lincoln Center on Broadway just north of 62nd St. this Thurs, Nov 15 at 7:30 PM. The show is free, but the earlier you get there the better because the venue frequently sells out.

Frontman/guitarist Julian Saporiti harmonizes with singer Erin Aoyama in the album’s shimmering, Elliott Smith-tinged opening track, Pacific Fog, Tessa Sacramone’s plaintive violin soaring overhead. Saporiti’s narrative allusively references John Okada’s hauting1957 novel, also titled No-No Boy.

This album goes beyond Japanese-American incarceration to focus on similarly relevant history. Case in point: Boat People, a gently sweeping, hypnotic ballad that juxtaposes the story of a mid-70s Vietnamese doctor who resettled in Montreal, alongside a more detailed, harrowing account of current-day refugees:

Fourteen hours by car, cargo trucks and cabs
Just to shake the cops, Mom had to stay back
A Chinese safe house and covered tracks…

The floor of the Pacific is littered with Asian bones.

The stories lighten but are no less minutely detailed in Han Shan & Helen Keller: Cold Mountain – an indelibly tense wintertime Boston college-crowd scenario – and then Disposable Youth, a wry afternoon party pickup scenario. By contrast, Lam Thi Dep – a John Lennon-esque anthem named after a female Viet Cong soldier captured in a famous Vietnam War photo – has the most intertwined of all the stories here. Saporiti’s savagely sardonic references reach beyond the fact that many first-generation Vietnamese-Americans voted Republican, to a hilarious account of knee-jerk political correctness in academia.

Instructions to All Persons refers to the FDR edict to round up Japanese-Americans on the west coast; Saporiti and Ayoyama sing in the voice of a survivor of the camps, reflecting on their prisoner friends’ quiet defiance and attempts to maintain some kind of normalcy there.

Saporiti draws his inspiration for Ogie/Naoko, a charming ukulele waltz, from Melody Miyamoto Walters’ book In Love and War: The World War II Love Letters of a Nisei Couple, adding sobering context to an otherwise schmaltzy story. The sweeping parlor pop ballad Heart Mountain – named for the camp where Ayoyama’s grandmother was imprisoned – is another waltz, Saporiti’s narrator hopeful that someday he can consummate a clandestine romance and rebuild his life as a college professor.

Two Candles In the Dark, arguably the album’s strongest song, is perhaps ironically its most Americana-flavored one. Saporiti gives voice to an irrepressible rulebreaker looking to get over despite her circumstances:

Pretty outlaw call a quarter past, light knuckles on a barrack door
She got a brother down in Topaz, I saw that name once in a jewelry store
Wind around past the skaters and pond, looking for a cut in the wire
She’s got a key to the cellar door,
I don’t ask questions, man, just stand there inspired

Dragon Park, the album’s most stoically angry song, traces images from Saporiti’s own Tennessee childhood as a Vietnamese-American fighting off racist idiots:

I know that Southern Stare
Not just back home but everywhere

The album ends with its most Asian folk-inflected tune, Little Saigon, lost in a reverie of a place to indulge in a heritage including but not limited to Vietnamese psychedelic rock and the dan bau, a magical, warp-toned stringed instrument. At its best, Saporiti’s tunesmithing ranks with any of the real visionaries of this era: Elvis Costello, Hannah Fairchild and Rachelle Garniez. You’ll see on the best albums of 2018 page at the end of the year.