New York Music Daily

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Category: noir music

A Far Cry Play a Demanding, Witheringly Relevant Program in Withering Heat in Central Park

It’s already an achievement when all eighteen members of a string orchestra can be on the same page and get everything right in the comfortable confines of a concert hall. It’s another thing entirely to do that in ninety-plus degree heat, facing a Manhattan sunset. Tuesday night at the Naumburg Bandshell in Central Park, A Far Cry really worked up a sweat doing a whole lot more in a brilliantly programmed mix of mostly dark works with potent resonance for the pre-impeachment Trump era. 

The highlight could have been Philip Glass’ Symphony No. 3, from 1994. Managing to negotiate the thicket of hypnotic, often ominous circular riffage that foreshadowed Glass’ Dracula soundtrack from five years later was impressive enough. Yet the group dug in for both the jokes – the trick ending at the end of the first movement and the “who, me?” exchanges of pizzicato in the final one – – along with relentless macabre understatement. From the muted, wounded whispers of the introduction, dynamics were ripe to rise with a pulse just short of bloodcurdling. Much as the second movement is on the slow side, it’s also very percussive, and the ensemble were on that as well, bassists Erik Higgins and Karl Doty exchanging fanged serpentine phrases beneath circling cloudbanks of melody.

It’s one of Glass’ most Lynchian works, and it set the stage lusciously well for an even more dynamically bristling interpretation of Bartok’s Divertimento for String Orchestra. WQXR’s Elliott Forrest, the night’s emcee, explained that the composer had written it in 1939 before escaping the encroaching fascism in his native Hungary. The ensemble kept their cards close to the vest through the straightforwardly strutting phony pageantry that opens the triptych but then got their claws out for the anguished, jaggedly slashing danse macabre afterward. Likewise, the contrast between the sense of depletion and loss in the second movement and the defiantly jaunty coda was breathtaking. As a musical hail-Mary pass (and raised middle finger at the Nazis and their enablers), it’s akin to Richard Strauss’ Till Eulenspiegel cheating the hangman.  

The group closed with Osvaldo Golijov’s Tenebrae, rising from stillness to aching, Glass-ine echo effects and then an elegaic processional, a brooding conclusion to an often haunting evening.

The warmup piece – in every sense of the word – was Mozart’s Divertimento in F, K.138, a prescient student work written when he was 15 that lacks the colorful voicings he’d develop just a few years later, but its coy hooks still pop up in movies and on NPR all the time. As one of the band members mused to the crowd, who knew that this piece would ever be played in such a major city, let alone to a full house. Mozart would no doubt be plenty proud of himself.

And a special shout-out to the pretty blonde woman in the black sundress who shared an entire bag of walnut-banana crunch  – a high-class take on Fiddle Faddle – with the hungry blog proprietor seated behind her. If you see this, be in touch – reciprocity is due. 

A Far Cry’s next performance is a program including Moussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition plus a Jessica Meyer world premiere and works by Bernstein and Respighi at 3 PM on September 8 at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. The next concert at the Naumburg Bandshell is this coming Tuesday, July 17 at 7:30 PM with popular indie classical orchestra the Knights playing works by Anna Clyne along with Brahms’ Hungarian Dances and works by Armenian icon Komitas Vardapet. Get there early if you want a seat. 

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Two Great Psychedelic Bands, One Free Brooklyn Concert Series

Two Saturdays ago, Sadies guitarist Dallas Good thrashed and flailed and spun the headstock of his vintage hollowbody Gretsch, building a howling vortex of sound while his brother Travis stood more or less motionless as he kept a river of jangle and clang running from his Telecaster. In the middle of the stage, bassist Sean Dean held down a steady pulse while drummer Mike Belitsky kept a nimble shuffle beat.

This past Saturday, Songhoy Blues guitarist Aliou Touré did pretty much the same thing, building a screaming Chicago blues-infused solo, his fellow axeman Garba Touré running a loping Malian duskcore pattern off to the side, bassist Oumar Touré playing a serpentine, circular riff over drummer Nathanael Dembélé’s counterintuiitive flourishes.

On one hand, the Canadian and Malian bands couldn’t have less in common. On the other, both are as psychedelic as you could possibly want. And that seems to be the theme at this year’s free outdoor concert series at Union Pool. They’ve been doing free shows in the back courtyard there for the past couple of years, but this year’s series is better than ever.

There are a lot of acts more popular than you’d expect to see in at this comfortable, comparatively small space. This year, that started with the Sadies. The last time they played New York, it was at Webster Hall (if there ever was a New York venue that deserved to be turned into a luxury condo or a Whole Foods, it was that despicable stain on the East Village). The last time this blog was in the house at a Sadies show, it was May of 2014 at Bowery Ballroom and they were playing with the late Gord Downie.

This show didn’t feature any of their brilliantly ominous songs with the late Tragically Hip crooner, but they touched on every style they’ve ever played. Dallas Good broke out his violin for a lickety-split punkgrass romp about midway through the set, and also for the encores. He also delivered some seamlessly expert acoustic flatpicking on a couple of country numbers.

Travis Good seemed to be in charge of the more epic, tectonic solos, particularly during a mini-suite of surf songs, propelled expertly by Belitsky. They went back into the waves a little later with another instrumental that came across as a more bittersweet, southwestern gothic take on the Ventures’ Apache. But it was the brooding, uneasily clanging midtempo anthems that were the high point of the show. Afterward, Dallas Good took care to thank the crowd for coming out – for a free show, no less.

Songhoy Blues are probably the loudest and most eclectic of the Malian duskcore bands to make it to the US so far. They only played a couple of the loping Saharan grooves popularized by first-wave bands like Tinariwen and Etran Finatawa. They opened with a briskly stomping, only slightly Malian-flavored garage rock tune with a searing guitar solo from Garba Touré. Throughout the set, he and the frontman took turns with their solos – a lightning-fast, Blue Oyster Cult-ish run in one of the long, hypnotic numbers midway through was the high point.

After that, they slowed down for a moody minor-key blues ballad that wouldn’t have been out of place in the Otis Rush songbook save for the lyrics. “I know that 99% of you don’t understand a word I’m saying,” Aliou Touré told the crowd: the subtext was that the band’s lyrics are potently political. Then he settled for reminding everybody that music is a universal language. After a couple of numbers that shifted between looming desert rock and frenetically bopping, metrically challenging soukous-flavored rhythms, they closed with a mighty, rising and falling anthem and encored with their lone song in English, Together, a prayer for peace from a part of the world that really needs it.

And a shout-out to the sound guy: this may be an outdoor series, but the sonics in the backyard – a completely uninsulated space with highs potentially bouncing all over the place – were pristine. Few venues sounds as good indoors as at Union Pool outdoors the past couple of Saturdays. That’s a real achievement. The Union Pool free concert series continues this Saturday, July 14 at around 3 with jangly British “power trio” Girl Ray.

Thumbscrew Make Haunting, Thorny Music, and Play a Week at the Vanguard Starting July 17

The album cover shot for the first of Thumbscrew’s two simultaneous new releases, Ours, shows bassist Michael Formanek, guitarist Mary Halvorson and drummer Tomas Fujiwara standing motionless, backs to a wall, each holding a cactus. The two guys manage to half-conceal their grins, but Halvorson can’t. Does this ridiculous symbolism mean that they’re having a lot of fun playing thorny music? Hmmmmm……

The folks at the Vanguard, where the trio will be playing at 8:30 and 10 starting on July 17, seem to agree. You should see what they put on their calendar page: essentially, “This band won’t torture you, so if you like sounds that are just a wee, wee bit outside, come see them.” Halvorson – who’s finally getting the critical props she’s deserved for the past decade – has played there several times in the past, but this is the collaborative trio’s debut there.

The album – streaming at Cuneiform Records – opens with the aptly titled Snarling Joys, a furtively strolling, eerie quasi-bolero and a dead ringer for Big Lazy. Halvorson’s spidery noir evokes Steve Ulrich and Formanek’s deadpan, methodical basslines bring to mind Andrew Hall while Fujiwara finally abandons the racewalk for the shadows. It’s one of the best songs Halvorson has ever written.

Fujiwara’s Saturn Way has more spacious if similarly eerie chromatics set against a hypnotically circling web of polyrhythms, decaying to a sepulchrally flickering tableau, Halvorson’s funereal belltones hanging overhead. Formanek’s Cruel Heartless Bastards bookends a a dissociative round robin with grimly insistent waves of late 70s King Crimson, Halvorson painting a vast, echoey grayscale as Fujiwara tumbles and crashes

Smoketree, another Halvorson tune, alternates three themes. The trio open with spare, moody pastoral jazz, Formanek pulling the band into stalking King Crimson territory again before Halvorson hits her pedal for warpy, watery weirdness. Thumbprint, also by Halvorson, could be Gabor Szabo covering a Monk swing tune with an sardonically evil rhythm section: her wry quotes and space lounge sonics build contrast over Formanek’s loopy hooks and Fujiwara’s shifty shuffles.

The first of two consecutive Fujiwara tunes, One Day gives Halvorson a misty backdrop for desolate, spacious phrasing but also some hilarious, thinly cached quotes, Formanek adding simmering and then punchy melody when not harmonizing uneasily with the guitar. The second, Rising Snow wafts sparely and morosely toward waltz territory until Fujiwara hits some steady but impossible-to-figure syncopation – this also could be Big Lazy.

The album concludes with two Formanek numbers. The first is titled Words That Rhyme With Spangle (angle bangle dangle jangle mangel mangle strangle tangle wangle wrangle). It veers away from catchy, circular chromatic riffs as the rhythm falls away to a drifting wildfire, and then makes a slight return. Unconditional, the final cut, is a funhouse mirror version of a balmy ballad, lowlit by Halvorson’s distantly menacing tremolo-picking and Fujiwara’s cymbal drizzle.

Interplay and Halvorson’s usual sense of humor notwithstanding, this a pretty dark record – and it might be the best album of 2018. And there’s a companion release, Theirs, a covers collection. Watch this space for more about that one before the Vanguard stand starts.

Haunting Harmonies and Fierce Relevance From Bobtown at the American Folk Art Museum

When you have three multi-instrumentalists as diversely talented as Jen McDearman, Katherine Etzel and Karen Dahlstrom, who needs more people in the band? Friday night at the American Folk Art Museum, in a rare trio performance, the three core members of folk noir group Bobtown reaffirmed their status as one of the best bands in New York. Which they’re been for the past ten years.

They haven’t been playing out a lot lately since they’re in the process of making a new album.  “For those of you who know us, we’re a pretty dark band,” Dahlstrom admitted. “The new record is…more of a charcoal grey.” Which was pretty accurate: the new songs in their tantalizingly brief, headlining set were less macabre than much of the band’s back catalog, if they weren’t exactly carefree.

The band’s closing number, No Man’s Land – as in, “I am no man’s land” – brought the house down. Dahlstrom couldn’t resist telling the crowd how much more resonance this fearlessly feminist, oldtime gospel-flavored broadside has taken on in the few weeks since she’d written it. The women’s three-part harmonies spoke truth to power throughout this ferocious reclamation of women’s rights, and dreams, a slap upside the head of trumpie patriarchy.

Getting to that point was just as redemptive. The trio opened with another brand-new number, In My Bones, pulsing with vocal counterpoint. You wouldn’t expect Etzel, whose upper register has razorwire power, to hang out in the lows, but she was there a lot of the time. Likewise, Dahlstrom – best known for her mighty, gospel-infused alto – soared up in the highs. McDearman, who channels the most high-lonesome Appalachian sound of anyone in the group and usually takes the highest harmonies of all, found herself somewhere in the middle for most of it.

The rest of the new material, including the bittersweet kiss-off anthem Let You Go, had a more wry sensibility than the band’s usual ghostly chronicles. Rumble Seat, a sardonic chronicle of smalltown anomie that could just as easily be set in luxury condo-era Brooklyn as somewhere in the Midwest, was even funnier, especially when the trio reached the eye-rolling yodels on the final choruses.

The band joined voices for a 19th century field holler-style intro and then some loomingly ominous harmonies in Battle Creek, Dahlstrom’s chilling, gospel-infused chronicle of an 18th century Michigan millworker’s descent into the abyss. Throughout the evening, McDearman switched from eerily twinkling glockenspiel to atmospheric keyboards and also cowbell. Etzel, who typically handles percussion, played tenor guitar; Dahlstrom played both guitar and banjo, the latter a relatively new addition to her arsenal.

The Free Music Fridays series at the American Folk Art Museum is off this week for the holiday but resumes on July 13 at around 6 PM with a typically excellent lineup including elegantly angst-fueled, individualistic torchsong/parlor pop piano chanteuse Jeanne Marie Boes, followed by soul/gospel belter (and Lenny Molotov collaborator) Queen Esther.

And several other artists who’ve played the museum in recent months – especially when sticking around for the whole night wasn’t an option – deserve a shout. Dave Hudson treated the crowd to a catchy, anthemic set of solo acoustic janglerock. Heather Eatman played a rare mix of similarly catchy, 80s-inspired acoustic songs she’d written back then as a teenager. Jon LaDeau flexed his purist country blues guitar chops, Joanna Sternberg alternated between LOL-funny and poignant original Americana, and Miwa Gemini and her accordionist mashed up uneasy southwestern gothic and Mediterranean balladry. And as far as vocals are concerned, along with this show, the most exhilarating sets here so far this year have been by Balkan singer Eva Salina and her pyrotechnic accordionist Peter Stan, along with a rare solo show by Dahlstrom and a deliciously venomous farewell New York performance by blue-eyed soul powerhouse Jessi Robertson.

Poignant, Pensive Brilliance on Jessie Kilguss’ Allusive, Eclectic, Wickedly Tuneful New Album

You’d think that someone who’d taken a star turn in stage productions with Daniel Day Lewis and Marianne Faithfull would stick with a successful theatrical career. But Jessie Kilguss was drawn to music – and that’s our victory and the theatre world’s loss. Over the past decade, she’s become one of the most haunting singers in any style of music. Her delivery is intimate, like she’s letting you in on a secret – whether that might be a sly joke, an innuendo or something far more sinister. While she’s best known as a purveyor of folk noir, her back catalog spans from witchy art-rock to anthemic janglerock to Richard and Linda Thompson-esque, Britfolk-influenced stylings.

Her new album The Fastness – streaming at Spotify – is not about velocity. It’s about refuge. The title is a North Sea term for a secluded hideaway: a place to hold fast. That sheltering theme resonates mightily through a mix of imagistic, often poignant songs blending elements of 60s soul, 80s goth, new wave and art-rock. And Kilguss’ voice has never soared more mightily or murmured more mordantly than here on this album. She and her first-class band are playing the album release show this Thursday, June 28 at 8:30 PM at the downstairs third stage at the Rockwood; cover is $10.

With Kirk Schoenherr’s contrasting layers of guitar – icy and Siouxsie-esque in the left channel, watery and organ-timbred in the right – the album’s opening track The Master is an elegaic masterpiece. In usual Kilguss fashion, it’s enigmatic to the extreme. “Who will be the oracle when he is gone?” is the final refrain. A Bernie Sanders parable, maybe, or a more ancient, mythological reference? 

Kilguss follows that with Spain, a guardedly optimistic if understatedly brooding update on 60s soul balladry, spiced with guitar grit over the calmly swaying pulse of John Kengla’s bass and Rob Heath’s drums. Strangers comes across as a wistful mashup of Guided By Voices and Blondie, while Dark Corners of Your Mind follows a hypnotically vamping, psychedelic path, akin to the Frank Flight Band with a woman out front. Kengla’s bass dances amid the sheets of rainy-day guitars as Kilguss ponders the danger of being subsumed by the demands of a relationship.

New Start is a surreal, unlikely mashup of classic 60s C&W and echoey new wave, but Kilguss manages to make it work, all the way through one of the album’s catchiest choruses, awash in the waves from her harmonium. Hell Creek – a co-write with Kengla – is one of the murder ballads she writes so well. With its lingering atmospherics, Kilguss references current-day atomization and how its ramifications can do far more damage than just playing tricks with your mind.

Likewise, Rainy Night in Copenhagen has aptly echoey, Cure-like ambience. Bridge the Divide is the monster anthem here, an eerily propulsive Laurel Canyon psychedelic verse giving way to soaring new wave on the chorus.

What Is It You Want From Me is the closest thing here to Kilguss’ purist pop masterpiece Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, from her 2014 album Devastate Me. She winds up this cycle with with the metaphorically-loaded Edge of Something, an easy place to fall off one way or another. Another triumph for one of the most unselfconsciously brilliant tunesmiths to emerge from this city in recent years and a strong contender for best rock record of 2018.

A Harrowing, Hauntingly Relevant, Apocalyptic Album and a North Carolina Stand by Curtis Eller’s New Psychedelic Band

Curtis Eller has been one of the great songwriters in any style of music since the early zeros. His music has a deep gothic Americana streak and an occasional resemblance to Tom Waits, with a similarly diverse Americana palette that spans from blues to bluegrass to the theatre music that’s become Eller’s latest focus. He’s also a magnetic live performer, and a killer storyteller (pun intended). His latest project features his new dark psychedelic band the Bipeds, who are playing this coming weekend at their dance company’s performance at the Fruit, 305 South Dillard St in Durham, North Carolina. Shows are June 21-23 at 8 PM, with an additional 6 PM performance on June 24. Cover is $15/$10 stud/srs.

The Bipeds’ haunting, Orwellian, carnivalesque debut album, 54 Strange Words, is streaming at Bandcamp. Bristling with fire-and-brimstone metaphors, it’s an assessment of how a populace can be both lulled and beaten into submission by a police state. Musically, it’s something of a departure for Eller in that the songs are both a lot longer and louder than most of his back catalog, partially due to the presence of electric guitarist Jack Fleishman (who also takes a turn on the drums). Joseph Dejarnette plays bass and baritone guitar, with Gabriel Anderson usually behind the drumkit. Stacy Wolfson, Dana Marks, Jessi Knight and William Commander all pitch in on vocals.

Eller’s spare banjo opens the first track, awash in reverb. setting the stage for this grim whodunit as it morphs into a hypnotic, loopy groove akin to early Country Joe & the Fish in 7/8 time. “Human error and blood on my hands – you want murder, man, this is one,” Eller intones.

A Ragged Sayonara, a sad, slow country waltz, features an arresting break for Marks’ mighty, theremin-like, operatic vocalese. It seems to be directed at a ghost. “Sayonara, my poison, a shadow grows into my dreams…and mercury blossoms rise through me,” Eller matter-of-factly explains.

An ominously echoey minature, The Ransom Note segues into Great Skeleton House, a creepy, slow stomp with the women in the band on vocals, dead bones assembled as some twisted kind of metaphorical home. As with the opening number, Eller kicks off the fire-and-brimstone delta blues Dressful of Dreams with spare, brooding solo banjo, then the rhythm section hits a shuffle beat and they’re off, rising to an uneasily enveloping crescendo. A funeral pyre may be involved.

A Surgical Solution is a diptych, first an Appalachian poltergeist aria, just Marks backed by Eller’s skeletal banjo. As the band shifts into an ominous, metaphorically bristling blues, the Orwellian linguistics and implications thereof, which Eller alludes to earlier in the album, finally break the surface.

Strange Words is the key to this song cycle, a sternly apocalyptic 6/8 minor-key blues that builds to another hypnotic psych-folk vamp . “There’s a human heart beating in the silence, the only thing a human heart can do,” Eller muses in typical aphoristic fashion. As his narrative grows more macabre, it’s a reminder of how similar biblical and wartime imagery are. The final cut is Amnesiac’s Grace, imagining with withering Roger Waters-style cynicism what the world would be like once everything displeasing to the dictators has been erased. Needless to say, in times like these, we need more albums like this. And if the theatrical performance even remotely echoes Eller’s bleak, uncompromising vision, it must be pretty intense.

Twin Guns Bring Their Searing Noir Intensity to a Revered, Repurposed East Village Spot

Are Twin Guns the best straight-up rock band in New York right now? They could be. Since the early zeros, the trio of guitarist Andrea Sicco, former Cramps drummer Jungle Jim and bassist Kristin Fayne-Mulroy have put out three volcanic, creepy, reverb-oozing albums that blend punk, garage rock, horror surf and spaghetti western sounds. Their latest one, Imaginary World – streaming at Bandcamp – continues in the more ornate, menacingly psychedelic direction of their previous release The Last Picture Show. Their next gig is tomorrow night, June 14 at 9:30 PM at Coney Island Baby, the former Brownies and Hifi Bar space. Cover is $12.

The new album begins with the title cut, Sicco’s menacingly reverberating layers of guitar over steady, uneasy tom-toms and cymbal splashes, the bass a looming presence deep in the mix. As the surreal tableau builds, Sicco adds roaring, pulsing and keening slide guitar textures, a one-man psychedelic punk guitar army.

100 Teenage Years follows a furtively vampy Laurel Canyon psych-folk tangent in the same vein as the Allah-Las. Cannibal Soul is a twisted waltz, Fayne-Mulroy supplying hypnotic fuzztone growl beneath Sicco’s slowly uncoiling, macabre layers of chromatics, a sonic black velvet cake. Then the trio mash up doom metal and horror surf in Dark Is Rising, funeral organ tremoloing over a crushing Bo Diddley beat.

Complete with a peppy horn section, Portrait in Black could be the darkest faux bossa Burt Bacharach ever wrote – or Tredici Bacci in especially mean, sarcastic mode. The band revisit their more straight-ahead vintage garage rock roots with the shuffling Sad Sad Sunday, then move forward thirty years to the hypnotically riff-driven Blueberry Sugar, which sounds like the Brian Jonestown Massacre playing Motown.

Sociopath is a straight-up zombie strut, Sicco artfully adding layers around the skeleton. The lush, bleak dirge House on the Hill brings unexpected plaintiveness and gravitas to the playlist, followed by the album’s most ep[ic track, Endless Dream, rising from 60s riff-rock to BJM spacerock to melancholy psych-folk and a final sampede out.

There are also three bonus tracks. My Baby, awash in a toxic exhaust of white noise, drifts from punk R&B toward the outer galaxies. Sick Theater might be the album’s best and creepiest track, a macabre, funereal, organ-infused waltz. The final song is Late at Night, an evilly twinkling, hypnotic way to wrap up one of the most unselfconsciously fun and intense albums in recent memory.

An Iconic, Fearlessly Populist Brooklyn Band Releases Their Most Ambitious Album in Bushwick Saturday Night

If there’s any New York band who’ve earned a song about themselves, it’s Les Sans Culottes. It’s on their latest album, She is Tossed By the Waves But Does Not Sink, streaming at Bandcamp. That’s the Paris city motto, and there’s no small irony in that the same could be said for the band. Since the 90s, they’ve slowly expanded from their origins as the Spinal Tap of late 60s French ye-ye psychedelic pop, to become as eclectic as the New York borough they represent used to be before the blitzkrieg of out-of-state white yuppies and “luxury” condos. No other New York band have spoken out as witheringly or accurately against the blight of gentrification as this shapeshifting crew – in spot-on, slangy French, no less. They’re playing the album release show this Saturday night, June 2 at 10 PM at El Cortez in Bushwick. The show isn’t listed on the venue calendar, but if they charged $20 for Amy Rigby, this should be about half that or less.

Along the way, the group have weathered several lineup changes and even a lawsuit by a spinoff of the band. That the Sans Culottes brand would be worth taking to court speaks for itself. This latest edition, fronted by founder Clermont Ferrand, is the most stylistically eclectic ever. While there are a few songs that bring to mind late 60s Serge Gainsbourg or Françoise Hardy, the satire is subtler than ever. Their signature mockery of French would-be rockers stumbling through all sorts of American idioms is still there, but the songs span from lush new wave to Stonesy rock to faux funk, stadium anthems and the noir.

The opening track’s title, Eiffel Tour is a Franglais pun – in French, it’s Le Tour Eiffel. It’s as much a musical as lyrical spoof, a shuffling early 70s style French faux funk tune driven by keyboardist Benoit Bals’ trebly Farbisa over Jacques Strappe’s drums and M. Pomme Frite’s bass. It’s the band’s An American in Paris:

Je prends mon élan
Et parle en verlan
Nous sommes en terrasse

[This is tough to translate, and indicative of how clever this band’s lyrics are. The first couple of lines roughly equate to “I get up the nerve and talk in verlan,” a French counterpart to pig Latin from the late 80s Paris banlieu Arab ghetto. “Nous sommes en terrasse,” meaning literally “We’re on the terrace,” was a meme referring to how resolute the French remained in the wake of the 2015 massacre at the Charlie Hebdo office. In that context, it’s “We’re just chilling.”]

There’s more Bals on this album than any of the band’s previous releases. Case in point: the warbly Wurlitzer electric piano and swirly organ on the more authentically funky second number, which is also more musically than lyrically satirical.

Chuchotements Chinois (Chinese Whispers – a reference to the French obsession with the Cure, maybe?) sets Geddy Liaison’s Rolling Stones guitar and lush vocals from the band’s two women singers, Kit Kat Le Noir and Brigitte Bordeaux, over a coy new wave strut with a sly resemblance to a popular 80s hit by French band Indochine. The phony bossa De Rien is a cluelessly chipper breakup number complete with breathy boudoir vocals and loungey piano.

The glossy, synthy 80s-style Chibeca v. Chewbacca shoots a spitball at sleazy developers trying to rename New York neighborhoods: rebranding gritty, constantly shrinking Chinatown as part of shi-shi Tribeca isn’t quite as moronic as calling the South Bronx the Piano District, but it’s close.

The jaunty doo-wop rock of L’Histoire des Sans Culottes chronicles the band’s triumphs and tribulations:

NOUS AVONS EU DES IMITATEURS,
BANDES D’HOMMAGES, MAUVAIS DOPPELGÄNGERS
En manque évident de savoir faire
Ersatz inferieurs sorry ass loseurs

[We’ve had imitators
Tribute bands, bad doppelgangers
Who obviously couldn’t get things done…]

You don’t really need a translation for that last line, right?

Je Ne Sais Quoi pokes playful fun at French pronouns over a slightly less retro backdrop. Along with their Cure obsession, the French also have a rabid Stooges cult, which the band salute in Detroit Rock Cite – which actually sounds more like AC/DC with keys. Mismatched styles are also the joke in A La Mode, an ersatz Stones-flavored shout out to Prince. The band follow that with La Ballade de Johnny X, poking wistful fun at the femme fatale tradition as personified by noir acts like Juniore

The catchy, riff-rocking Je M’en Fous (I Don’t Give a Fuck) opens with the line “Tawdry Adieu ou Audrey Tautou” and stays just as amusing from there, with a snide reference to French misadventures in imperialism. In the Hall of the Ye Ye King (Agathe Bauer) is a mock-rock salute to the power of unlikely one-hit wonder Euro-pop. The album winds up on a surprisingly somber note with the lavish art-rock epic Aller Sans Retour (One Way Ticket). Your appreciation of this album will increase immeasurably if you speak French – check the band’s priceless lyrics page– but it’s not necessary. Look for this on the best albums of 2018 list at the end of the year if Trump doesn’t blow us all up by then. 

Hannah vs. the Many Bring Their Withering Lyrics and Riveting Presence to an Iconic Brooklyn Dive

The best lyricist in rock music played Long Island City Bar last month. It wasn’t Elvis Costello or Aimee Mann doing a secret gig to warm up for a tour. It was Hannah Fairchild, who at this point in history is the gold standard as far as double entendres, searing metaphors and savage wit set to catchy tunes are concerned. That she plays a mean Telecaster, fronts an incendiary power trio with a slinkily feral rhythm section and has a flamethrower wail for a voice is the icing on the cake. She’s playing Hank’s this Saturday night at 10 PM; cover is $7.

Fairchild calls her band Hannah vs. the Many. “Just to be clear, you are not the many,” she reassured the crowd. She is the rare instance where the enemy of your enemy is actually your friend. Her music is not for people with meh lives. But for anyone who’s been wounded, or even tortured, she is your vanquishing valkyrie

And she was noir before that Canadian dotcom millionaire’s trust-tunded kid picked a Spanish last name to advertise herself as rock royalty. Fairchild’s doomed anti-heroines immolate themselves publicly and throw themselves headlong from tall buildings when the pain becomes too much. Fairchild followed the magic-realist trajectory of the latter through the machinegunning cadences of the night’s oldest song, All Eyes on Me, charging through the song’s eerie chromatic changes.

Most of the material was taken from Hannah vs. the Many’s most recent album Cinemascope, ranked as best rock record of the year here several months ago. “Here’s a song about musical theatre,” Fairchild said brightly, then launched into the grim punk rock torrents of Surrender Dorothy:

Cinderella’s sisters tell us
Nothing in the final edit
‘Cause we left them blinded, bled and
Screaming through the rolling credits
Made a mistake, played it straight
How many punchlines til she breaks?
Splitting on seams, no reprieve
What I get is what you see

Although Fairchild has led a more-or-less separate career in the theatre, obviously the road hasn’t been easy, for her or for any woman, for that matter.

Carl Limbacher’s bass scrambled over Max Tholenaar-Maples’ drums as the trio launched into the cynical Cameo, Fairchild’s simmering, distortedly jangly broken chords expoding into a fireball on the chorus. The swaying, simmering ballad Slow Burn made a stark contrast, then the band picked up the pace again in a split second.

When the night’s best number is a new  one, that speaks volumes to where its writer is right now. This one, Stupid, blended uneasy Syd Barrett-ish changes beneath a characteristically defiant narrative. And despite all the relentless cynicism and gloomy punchlines, the blonde woman in the classy black dress, cranking out chords from her vintage Fender amp under the low lights, was no victim. This was a victory snatched from the jaws of defeat. Never mess with a songwriter: they always get even in the end.

Transcendent Jazz Reinventions of Chopin Classics by the Dead Composers Club

Gotta love the cd cover of the The Chopin Project, the debut album from Noah Preminger and Rob Garcia’s Dead Composers Club. It’s a bluelit nocturnal shot of a bridge across the Central Park Lake: creepy and Romantic, perfectly capsulizing the appeal of this kind of music. Jazz grinches have long made fun of “jazzing up the classics,” but if you were around in the past century and you missed iconoclastic pianist Dorothy Donegan playing Rachmaninoff, that’s tragic. 

And there’s more precedent for the Dead Composers Club’s reinvention of Chopin preludes and nocturnes than there might seem. Chopin didn’t have Romany ancestry, but he drew from the same tradition as  Django Reinhardt. Yet this isn’t Romany jazz. This music is closer to the trio Little Worlds’ shapeshifting spinoffs on Bartok etudes, and guitarist Dan Willis’ chilling Satie Project. it’s not out of the question that Preminger might air some of these out at his gig on May 31 at 7:30 PM at Smalls, where he’s leading his Genuinuity quartet, with Jason Palmer on trumpet, Kim Cass on bass and Dan Weiss on drums.

Among tenor saxophonist/composers, Preminger is on a roll unrivalled by pretty much anyone these days. When he’s not writing some of the most viscerally affecting protest jazz out there, he’s reinventing Bartok and Chopin – and joining Jason Moran for a recording date early next month. Likewise, Garcia is not only one of the most purposeful, melodic, instantly recognizable drummers in jazz; he’s also a ferocious composer with a fearlessly populist sensibility. Joining the two here are Preminger’s longtime bassist Cass and guitarist Nate Radley.

The new album opens with the Nocturne Op27 Nº1 in C# minor, which gets an uneasily tiptoeing intro before the band expands, Garcia rustling while Preminger holds pretty close to the moody melody, fleshed out by Radley’s terse chords. A rather desolate guitar solo gives Preminger a launching pad to lift the music into somewhat brighter territory over Garcia and Cass’ floating swing.

Similarly, the band work unsettling close harmonies at the edges of the famous Prelude Op28 Nº2 in A minor, Preminger shifting between stark blues and fluttery postbop, Radley adding allusive angst over Garcia’s relentless, echoey suspense. it’s very close to Willis’ haunting take on Satie.

The band make aptly jaunty work of the Nocturne Op9 Nº2 in Eb major, a famously less gloomy piece that plenty of others have drawn on. The closest they get to Django jazz here is the Prelude Op28 Nº24 in D minor, a gorgeously bittersweet, jangly arrangement veering in and out of waltz time – although Radley lingers and clangs rather than hitting anything approaching a Reinhardt minor sixth shuffle. Garcia’s calmly predatory solo as the band vamps alongside him, and then the creepy chromatic outro, are the icing on the cake.

There’s a spare, searching quality to their version of the Etude Op25 Nº7 in C# minor; Radley’s plaintive, incisive solo is one of the album’s high points, Preminger floating in to offer some solace over Cass’ moodily dancing lines. They hint at Vegas noir with the rapidfire intro to the Prelude Op28 Nº8 in F# minor, then go as far outside as they ever do here, Radley clustering over a brisk dub-inflected groove, Garcia’s solo delivering as much foreshadowing as bluster.

The group walk the line between the boudoir and the ledge with the Nocturne Op62 Nº2 in E major: this album may be the high point in Radley’s recording career. Some of these Nocturnes, like the Nocturne Op32 Nº2 in Ab major, were Chopin’s top 40 pieces; the quartet give that one subtle latin and then early Ellingtonian allusions over a casual 6/8 stroll.

They bring back the full-throttle intensity, finding the inner bolero in the Prelude Op28 Nº6 in B minor, hanging in the shadows at the edge of macabre. Giving Cass a chance to move toward the forefront is a genius move, as is Preminger’s purist blues. The album’s final number, the Prelude Op28 Nº9 in E major, rises from a muted sway, propelled by Preminger’s colorful upper-register work and Radley’s unexpectedly sweet, spot-on Memphis flavor. Don’t be surprised to see this on the best jazz albums of 2018 page here at the end of the year.

In the meantime, where can you hear this masterpiece online? For starters, try youtube and Soundcloud, here and here.