New York Music Daily

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Category: noir music

Lurid, Lowlit, Slyly Reinvented Lounge Sounds From the Tiki Collective

Why did David Lynch take the title of his iconic second film from a lounge song? Because lounge jazz is creepy, and seedy, and phantasmagorical. Not everything on the Tiki Collective’s 2018 debut album Muse – streaming at Spotify – is creepy. In fact, some of the Toronto crew’s reinventions of pop hits are funny as hell, in a sarcastic Richard Cheese vein. But there’s sinister stuff here that’s perfect for any Halloween party playlist you have planned for this year.

The group chose a different vocalist for each song. There are subtle, ominous touches – a reverb guitar riff from Eric St-Lauren, a ripple of Michael Davidson’s vibraphone – in I’ve Never Left Your Arms, sung by Genevieve Marentette. With its moody klezmer overtones, It’s a good choice to open the record.

Did you know that Harlem Nocturne and Mood Indigo had words? Joanna Majoko and Tyra Juta do, and they sing them. Neither version is up to Ellington level…or the Ventures for that matter. The first of the really funny numbers is the Fleetwood Mac hit Hypnotized, reinvented as a deadpan, brooding soul song with Heather Luckhart and the Willows out front.

The Willows return with Melissa Lauren for a Sade-ized version of Don’t Fear the Reaper, which is also funny, though not quite as ridiculously surreal as Bobtown’s bluegrass cover. Speaking of Sade, guest singer Paget reaches for dreamy ambience in a slow, trip-hop influenced take of The Sweetest Taboo: the original vocalist would do just as well with these guys behind her.

The reliably excellent Lily Frost’s airy delivery matches the band’s spare Asian inflections in Mountain High, Valley Low. Irene Torres sings a muted, remarkable southwestern gothic remake of the old cheeseball mambo Quizas Quizas Quizas. Likewise, Chelsea Bridge gets the album’s most menacingly lingering intro before singer Mingjia Chen’s vocalese takes over.

There are two originals on the album. Avery Raquel sings the fluttering, bossa-tinged Dreaming, while Denielle Bassels closes the record with The Wanderer, a Ricky Nelson-style pop song. Also included are pretty straight-up covers of All Too Soon and I’ll Be Seeing You, sung by Jocelyn Barth and Jessica LaLonde, respectively.

Creepy Country From North of the Border

Today’s Halloween installment is a single. Monckton, New Brunswick honkytonk singer Chris Melanson’s Last to Say Goodbye could be a love song to a dead wife, or girlfriend: as morbid, maudlin country goes, it’s a classic of its kind. And particularly appropriate considering the events unfolding around the world at this moment in history.

Another Allusively Menacing, Lyrical Masterpiece From Ward White

Ward White is the Elvis Costello of the 21st century. Nobody does deviously whirlwind literary wordplay and catchy tunesmithing better. Like Costello, White is prolific – thirteen albums, including his latest, The Tender Age, streaming at Bandcamp. His influences are vast, he thinks outside the box, but he’s had the good sense to resist getting in over his head (Elvis C turned out to be great at string quartets but was, um, less successful with opera buffo and hip-hop). And White is arguably even darker than the past century’s greatest songwriter.

And he’s a hell of a lead guitarist, and a damn good bass player too. The new album features his longtime collaborators Tyler Chester on keys and the Wallflowers’ Mark Stepro on drums. This is their best album together: they’ve become White’s Attractions. Tenacious D bassist John Spiker engineered with his usual retro purism and flair.

Allusive violence and an ever-present menace have come to permeate most of White’s most recent material. The first track, Dirty Clouds, is a slow, funk-tinged number, Chester’s echoey Wurlitzer percolating beneath White’s dissociatively grim imagery. Check out the hilarious video – is this a metaphor for media terrormongering? Maybe a little bit. There are innumerable levels of meaning in White’s songs: they don’t just stand up to repeated listening, they require it. Catchy as his catalog is, it’s not for people with short attention spans or the faint of heart.

Track two, Easy Meat is one of White’s more sinisterly evocative narratives, vintage 80s powerpop pulsing along on a tense new wave beat, with a spacerock guitar solo at the center. Reduced to lowest terms, it’s about acting on impulses that would be unthinkable to anyone outside, say, the Gates Foundation or the California governor’s office.

Rhyme schemes, metaphors and reflections on anomie fly fast and furious in the Bowie-tinged Let’s Don’t Die At the Stoplight – like the gunfire White once found himself caught in while waiting at an intersection:

It’s not what he expects
But how he expects it
So quick to arrive
So grisly an exit
The eye takes an eye
And the windshield reflects it
You can put it into gear again….

White imagines Chet Baker in the afterlife, trying to pull himself together in Dentures, a mashup of piano-fueled Bowie balladry and Richard Thompson ghoulishness:

You’re either making art or getting paid
And the angel licked his nails and thought,
“All the really good ones die afraid.”
Put down your horn, you won’t need it
The day you’re born, you’re defeated…

Chester’s enigmatic organ solo is spot-on beyond belief.

On Foot, a brisk new wave/powerpop burner, is a murder ballad: the cruellest joke is musical rather than lyrical. The most Bowie-inspired song here is the album’s bittersweetly catchy title track, White channeling Mick Ronson with his solo in a surreal tale of a LA cop casually making a shocking existential choice.

One of White’s recurrent themes is the question of where everyday mishegas crosses the line, whether that might endanger merely the crazy person or everyone around them. Gail, Where’s Your Shoes is a prime example, complete with tantalizingly woozy guitar solo. Is this a thinly veiled portrait of a woman pouring herself out of a cab on a Williamsburg avenue in the fall of 2006? Hmm…..

White builds a more overtly cynical, vengeful narrative over Stonesy sarcasm in Wasn’t It Here: as he does throughout the album, Stepro’s casual flurries drive the murderous point home. White hits his chorus pedal for icy 80s gloss in Heavy Lifting, the album’s funniest number.

“Suicide rates are an urban myth if you look into it,” White’s titular Karate Dentist relates over a backdrop that could be Steely Dan at their most rocking, White closes the album with Monrovia, a distantly Turkish (or Smiths) tinged kiss-off anthem, and the only place where he stops trying to conceal the snarl beneath the surface. He’s no stranger to best-albums-of-the-year list here: his 2013 album Bob and his 2020 release Leonard at the Audit both topped the full-length charts here, and this may end up at the top of the crop of 2021 as well.

An Iconic Horror Film For the Ears

What better to kick off this year’s annual October-long Halloween celebration of dark music than one of the alltime great horror movies for the ears? Dmitri Shostakovich wrote his Symphony No. 4 in 1936, when he first earned the wrath of Josef Stalin for daring to create interesting and relevant music that didn’t glorify the genocidal Soviet regime.

Sound familiar?

Censorship and totalitarianism existed long before the lockdown, the needle of death, Facebook and Google. The Leningrad Symphony Orchestra was pressured not to premiere the symphony, which wouldn’t see the light of day until 1961. The composer reputedly called it his favorite.

As political satire, it’s one of the most withering pieces of music ever written. It’s a mashup of Stravinsky, Tschaikovsky, Grieg’s In the Hall of the Mountain King and Schoenberg, but more venomously political than anything any of those composers ever wrote. There’s a spellbinding live recording by the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Gianandrea Noseda, streaming at Spotify, that you should hear if you can handle savagely troubled music right now.

This particular album is taken from two concerts at the Barbican in November 2018. Noseda’s dynamics are vast and dramatic to the extreme, as they should be. Whether explosive, or shuddering with horror, or ruthlessly parodying Stalin’s campy pageantry, the orchestra are a force of nature.

The first movement comes in with a shriek, a pulsing post-Sacre du Printemps dance of death and all kinds of foreshadowing of how Shostakovich would expand on this kind of phantasmagoria, far more politically. All the strongman themes in Shostakovich’s symphonies, from the third on, are phony: he never lets a tyrant, whether Stalin or Krushchev, off the hook.

Coy cartoons suddenly appear livesize and lethal. This is a cautionary tale, the composer telling us not to take our eye off the ball, or else. A rite of the dead of winter, intertwined with terrified individual voices, rises to a vicious crescendo. The first of many references to Anitra’s Dance, the Grieg theme, appears. Concertmaster Roman Sinovic and bassoonist Rachel Gough become plaintive and persistent witnesses to history.

Movement two is nothing less than an indictment, a sometimes ghostly, pervasively anxious waltz wafting in and out, the ruthlessness of the regime baring its fangs to a terrorized citizenry. The concluding third movement begins too casual to be true, as the orchestra calmly allude to another macabre Russian classic, Moussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain. The chase scene early on doesn’t have quite the horror of the KGB pursuit theme in Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 8, but it’s close.

The ensemble offer a twisted parody of a Germanic minuet as a spitball at the entitled Russian collaborator classes, Noseda getting maximum cynical gossipy fervor out of the strings. Stormtroopers gather and wreak havoc, the orchestra building a devastatingly phantasmagorical parody of Tschaikovsky’s Nutcracker. Clashes of ideologies, musical and otherwise, grow more combatively surreal. The seemingly ineluctable, gruesome march out doesn’t get to fade down without a series of accusatory ghosts.

As with all of Shostakovich, there are innumerable other details that could take up ten more pages to chronicle: buckle up for this carnival of dead souls. The London Symphony Orchestra’s ongoing series of live albums comprise some incredible performances and this might be the very best of recent years.

Brilliantly Catchy, Creepy Reverb-Drenched Desert Rock From Cate Von Csoke

Australian guitarist Cate Von Csoke blends reverb-infused desert rock and girl-down-the-well vocals for one of the most distinctively creepy sounds around. Her new vinyl record Almoon – streaming at Bandcamp – is a lock for one of the best of 2021. Throughout the album, the mystery never lifts. After awhile, it all starts to sound like one long, forlorn song – but Von Csoke owns that sound.

She opens it with Coyote Cry, her hazy, distant vocals and reverb-drenched, Link Wray-inspired changes over drummer Steve Shelley’s slow, loping beat. Jared Artaud’s eerily twinkling Wurlitzer twinkles eerily amid Von Csoke’s icy clang in the second song, Silver Screen

Imagine Marissa Nadler covering a Morricone spaghetti western theme and you get Silver Highway. Von Csoke breaks out her repeater box for an Electric Prunes-style strobe in the next cut, Flake and follows that with Dream Around, just disembodied vocals and lingering guitar jangle.

She sticks with the guitar-and-vocals format for Flowers, which brightens the mood a little. But that doesn’t last, as Darkchild unfolds over a catchy series of brooding 60s folk-rock changes. The final cut, Hold True brings the album full circle: Australians have always had a thing for Wray and surf rock in general.

Now where did Von Csoke escape to, before the Australian government decided to institute draconian lockdowns whenever any rando shows up positive on a meaningless PCR test? She ended up in Brooklyn: apartheid capitol of the US, outside of Oregon, anyway. Rents are coming down all over town: these days the South Bronx is looking better and better.

Sizzling Noir Swing in the Black Hills on the First of the Month

Back in 2018, Minneapolis band Miss Myra & the Moonshiners put out one of the most darkly electrifying oldtime swing albums of the century. The band’s lineup has shifted a bit since then, but they’re still ripping up stages across the northern United States. That record, Sunday Sinning, is still streaming at their music page, and the band have a gig on Oct 1 at 7 PM at the Monument, 444 Mt Rushmore Rd. in Rapid City, South Dakota. Cover is $27.50, but students get in for ten bucks less.

If the creepy, hi-de-ho side of swing is your thing, don’t blink on this record like this blog did the first time around. The group have the chutzpah to start it with their own theme song, Miss Myra leading the sinister romp with her voice and Django-inspired, briskly percussive guitar attack, lead guitarist Zane Fitzgerald Palmer and clarinetist Sam Skavnak spicing the the doomy ambience from trumpeter Bobby J Marks and trombonist Nathan Berry. Tuba player Isaac Heath provides a fat pulse with nimble color from drummer Angie Frisk.

They play Sheik of Araby with a hint of noir bolero on the intro, then they go scrambling with a hearty jump blues-style call-and-response between Myra and the guys. The Kaiser, an ominously steady klezmer swing tune, has bowed bass and a sinister bass clarinet solo from Skavnak before Palmer goes spiraling up into the clouds.

Likewise, Miss Myra’s creepy downward chromatics in Egyptian Ella, Skavnak’s clarinet front and center. Everybody Loves My Baby is brassier – five songs in, and we’re still in a minor key. Sunday Sinning (Palmer’s Bar) features a sizzling tradeoff from the clarinet to Palmer’s guitar solo. They close the record with the stomping, brisk Red Hot & Blue Rhythm – the only major-key song on the record – the ending screams out for audience participation. South Dakotans are obviously in for a treat on the first of the month.

A Foundationally Haunting, Influential 70s Political Thriller Soundtrack Finally Available on Vinyl

Alan Pakula’s 1974 political assassination thriller The Parallax View is arguably more relevant today than when it was released at the height of the Watergate scandal. And while fewer film scores were released in those days as stand-alone records, it was not uncommon: some of the era’s bestselling albums, from 2001: A Space Odyssey, to Star Wars, were movie soundtracks. So it’s something of a shock to discover that Michael Small’s Parallax View score, one of the most iconic and influential of its kind, has never been released on vinyl until now. The whole album is not online, but bits and pieces of the score are floating around youtube.

Generally speaking, it’s amazing how much mileage Small gets from so few moving parts, especially in the tensest moments, presaging the minimalist meme of fifteen years later. Eerily twinkling accents peek out over ominous, sustained low strings as the title theme wafts in, a distantly brassy allusion to a Richard Strauss tune which had been resurrected very successfully just five years previously. That dichotomy continues throughout the brief morgue scene and dips to pitchblende cellos for the sheriff’s house interlude.

The momentary chase scene is classic: jagged Bernard Herrmann strings, but also icepick flutes, machinegunning drums and more Strauss from the lows of the piano. Spare violins accent a wary, slow stroll through the Testing Center. Eerie close harmonies and creepy tritones linger over the sparest, syncopated pulse, bells against massed basses in the nocturnal tableau that follows.

The famous brainwashing scene at the Parallax Corporation comes complete with dialogue: the way Small shifts from wistful folk-pop, to faux-pomp, to a contented Jimmy Webb-esque nocturne, is a clinic in mashup science. Lows balance keening, tense highs, sheets of strings and brass shifting slowly through the sonic picture as a suitcase bomb is delivered. Did Angelo Badalamenti nick one of the riffs from the bells for a famous Twin Peaks theme? Maybe!

Small gets classic again, with the most minute, insectile string flickers against looming lows as the death squad make their way in. Zarathustra hangs in the wings through a bit of chaos before the closing credits, where the quasi-pageantry reaches Shostakovian heights of sarcasm. No spoilers; see the movie or even better, get the vinyl.

Fun fact: in pulling together this release, the Cinema Paradiso crew were required to identify the uncredited voiceover actor in the brainwashing scene in order to secure permission from Paramount Pictures to include it. Considerable sleuthing finally revealed that it was Pakula himself, who had recorded a scratch track. The director, apparently satisfied with his own Hitchcockian cameo, ended up keeping it

Mike Neer’s Brilliant, Imaginative New Album Reinvents Jazz Classics for Lapsteel

Lapsteel player Mike Neer‘s previous album was a reinvention of Thelonious Monk classics. His latest album Keepin’ It Real – streaming at Bandcamp – is an absolutely brilliant, occasionally unsettling mix of material imaginatively arranged for what Neer calls a “faux Hawaiian trio” of steel, bass and ukulele, all of which he plays himself. Recorded during the lockdown, it also features cameos from an allstar cast.

It wouldn’t be overhype to compare the opening number, Duke Ellington’s African Flower, to Big Lazy. Neer’s steady ukulele in the beginning is a red herring: his ominously chromatic steel lead follows a  swinging quasi-bolero beat. It brings to mind a certain Brooklyn psychedelic cumbia band’s take on Erik Satie.

Nica’s Dream, a Horace Silver tune, shifts from hints of bossa nova to a jaunty swing, then clouds pass through the sonic picture, guest vibraphonist Tom Beckham adding a steady, latin-tinged solo over Neer’s uke flurries before he hits a deviously Monk-inflected steel solo.

Neer’s take of McCoy Tyner’s Passion Dance – has a jaunty, bubbling, riff-driven cheer and a series of dazzling, rapidfire Beckham solos. Melodica player Matt King adds a layer floating over Neer’s steel in their amiably pulsing bossa take of Pensativa.

An aptly furtive, stalking take of Stolen Moments features Anton Denner taking tensely bluesy flight on alto flute. West Coast Blues comes across as what could have been a Bob Wills demo, Neer contributing both a terse bass solo and a romping, irrepressible bop steel solo.

Will Bernard guests sparely, incisively, and subtly ferociously on guitar in the allusively modal, vamping Witch Hunt. Accordionist Ron Oswanski kicks off Peace with a lush intro, Neer adding warmly, sparely pastoral melody over a slow, trip-hop-like sway

Fun fact: before Neer became New York’s foremost jazz lapsteel player, he did some time as lead instrumentalist with Hawaiian swing stars the Moonlighters, an influence that obviously stuck.

Samantha Fish’s Hard-Rocking Retro Soul Stands the Test of Time

The last time singer/guitarslinger Samantha Fish played New York, it was at Highline Ballroom – that’s how long her album Chills & Fever (streaming at Bandcamp) has been sitting on the hard drive here. It’s a standout in the ever-increasingly crowded field of musicians (and what’s left of the music industry bottomfeeders) who’ve figured out that a lot of people whose lives aren’t dictated by what’s popular on Instagram really love going out to dance to oldschool soul music. 

Or did –  until the lockdown destroyed everything.

Fish and her purist band revisit those sounds with a lot more rock energy than most: everything on this record is louder than on your typical classic soul album, and the band benefit from using gear with more dynamic range than tinny, sixty-year-old Vox amps. There’s a lot of music here: fourteen tracks! The first one, Jackie DeShannon’s He Did It gets turbocharged with a horn section – Mark Levron on trumpet and Travis Blotsky on saxes – and Fish’s haphazardly edgy, blues-tinged guitar breaks. But it also has a 21st-century edge: Fish amps up the lyric about being shamed by a backstabbing dude.

Shivery baritone sax kicks off the title track, a backbeat-driven noir take on Ronnie Love’s 1961 soul anthem with eerily echoey Rhodes piano from Bob Mervak. The album’s longest track, Ted Taylor’s Somebody’s Always Trying comes across as an even higher-energy remake of that song, with a careening jam at the end. Fish obviously has a thing for darkly torchy soul: she revisits that simmering vibe later with It’s Your Voodoo Working, set to a soul-clap beat, and then the slow, brooding Either Way I Lose, with Fish’s ominous wide-angle tremolo guitar.

She reinvents the old Barbara Lewis 70s soul hit Hello Stranger by taking it doublespeed, with Steve Nawara’s dancing bassline and the horns balanced by trebly organ and rippling Rhodes fills. Just when you think that the Irma Thomas hit Hurts All Gone is a going to be a balmy southern soul ballad, the guitars kick in hard on the chorus. Then Fish picks up the pace again with You Can’t Go, its sharp staccato riffage in the background behind her long blues guitar solo played through a 80s chorus pedal.

Lushly swaying along in 12/8 time, Never Gonna Cry is a defiantly soaring breakup ballad, The band make an improbably connection between 60s go-go shuffles and bluegrass with the Detroit Cobras’ Little Baby, then hit a relative calm with an appropriately organ-driven, gospel-tinged version of Allen Toussaint’s Nearer to You.

They follow You’ll Never Change, a snippy minor-key soul-blues tune, with a southern rock version of the old murder ballad Crow Jane. The album winds up with I’ll Come Running Over, the poppiest number here, an Australian hit for blue-eyed soul singer Lynne Randell. Fans of artists like Lizzie & the Makers, who use oldschool soul as a stepping-off point for sounds that aren’t limited by the format, should give this a spin.

J Hacha De Zola’s New Noir Soul Album Nails the Pervasive Darkness of the Lockdown Era

The loosely interconnecting theme of crooner J Hacha De Zola‘s new album East of Eden – streaming at Bandcamp – is estrangement and loss. Or, being cast from a good place into hell. He’s flirted with soul music before, through the prism of Nick Cave, but here he takes his deepest plunge into the most noir side of the style. The Doors are also an obvious influence, often to the point of homage. But this album is more of a mashup than a straight-up ripoff, testament to the quality of Hacha De Zola’s influences.

The album’s first track is Faded: imagine Cave backed by the Dap-Kings at their darkest, or Gato Loco. That band especially comes to mind since it’s their leader, Stefan Zeniuk who takes the smoky bass sax solo right before the ending. Jerry Ramos handles guitars (and also bass, drums and keys) along with Maxwell Feinstein, plus Joe Exley on tuba and Indofunk Satish on trumpet.

Lost Space is a brooding nocturnal mashup of Morrison Hotel-era Doors, Ventures spacerock and luridly simmering 60s soul. Which Way – as in “which way is the river” – is set to a slow, menacing psychedelic soul vamp, Isaac Hayes gone down the goth hole.

The album’s title track keeps the dark night of the vintage soul going – staccato reverb guitar, smoke from the sax – and mashes it up with Bulgarian folk, Lubomir Smilenov adding layers of stark kaval, gadulka and gaida, Zeniuk prowling around in the lows.

A Viral Spring is closer to the immersive low-register minor-key roar of Gato Loco: “Gotta get out, get away,” the bandleader finally hollers. Ramos’ tremolo organ enhances the Doors feel in Shadows on Glass: with the horns, it could be the lost good track from The Soft Parade.

Zeniuk’s growl contrasts with swirling organ and that persistent, pointillistic soul guitar in That Pleading Tone. Sad Song has an unexpected reggae undercurrent along with the retro soul atmosphere.

Southwestern gothic, trip-hop and symphonic Gato Loco menacingly blend together in Green and Golden. The album’s final cut is the quasi-bolero Meet Me: the addition of the Bulgarian instruments is a neat touch. In its own twistedly stylized way, this album really captures the grim uncertainty of the world since March of 2020.