New York Music Daily

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Category: noir music

Lyrical, Mesmerizing Psychedelia From Rose Thomas Bannister in Williamsburg Saturday Night

Psychedelic rock bands aren’t known for searing, literary lyrics. It’s even rarer to find a psychedelic group with a charismatic woman out in front. Likewise, it’s just as uncommon for a woman songwriter with an acoustic guitar to be leading a great psychedelic band. Saturday night at the brand-new Wonders of Nature in Williamsburg, the crowd got all that from Rose Thomas Bannister and her mesmerizing backing unit.

She and lead guitarist Bob Bannister are the closest thing we have to an American Richard & Linda Thompson – except that these two don’t hit each other over the head with things (or at least it doesn’t seem so). Her career dates back to the past decade in Nebraska, where she sharpened her hauntingly spare, broodingly allusive “great plains gothic” songcraft. His dates back a decade before to post-no wave bands like The Scene Is Now, who are still going strong.

With a wry grin, he bowed the strings of his Strat for “ambience,” as he put it, as the undulating, enigmatic opening number, Sandhll slowly coalesced, drummer Ben Engle’s subtle cymbals mingling with bassist Debby Schwartz’s nimbly melodic, trebly, punchy countermelodies and violinist Concetta Abbate’s ethereally tectonic washes. In this context, The Real Penelope and its achingly Homeric references were reinvented as a sort of mashup of the Grateful Dead’s China Cat Sunflower and Rubber Soul-era Beatles.

Appropriating religious imagery and turning it inside out is a device that goes back centuries – Rumi, for example – but Rose Thomas Bannister is unsurpassed at it. The best song of the night was a brand-new one, Heaven Is a Wall, a prime example. She opened it with a hypnotic, cirlcing fingerpicked riff, then it morphed into a sarcastic march as she let loose a litany of fire-and-brimstone imagery straight out of the Mike Pence speechbook. Likewise, the gritty, swinging In the Alley and its understatedly Tom Waits-like tableau.

The rest of the set rose and fell, from Sutherland, a misty, ominous murder ballad, to the jauntily sarcastic Like Birds Do (a subtle Macbeth reference); the grim, claustrophobic narrative Jephthah’s Daughter, and Houston, an escape anthem recast as late-60s blue-eyed soul. Terse, sinewy, slinky Strat lines blended with stately violin, leaping and swooping bass and Engle’s low-key propulsion. They closed with their one cover of the night, a pulsing, emphatic take of Ivor Cutler’s Women of the World: Bannister knows as well as anyone else that the future of this country is female.

Cellist Leah Coloff opened with an acerbic solo set of her own, a mix of stark blues phrasing, edgy Patti Smith-style anthems and bracing detours toward free jazz and the avant garde. Franklin Bruno and his power trio the Human Hands closed the night with a set of haphazardly punchy, catchy, sardonically lyrical tunes that brought to mind acts as diverse as Cheap Trick, Big Star and the Dream Syndicate. Afterward, Bob Bannister spun a mix of obscure 70s dancefloor tracks over the PA; everybody danced.


Irrepressible Trumpeter Steven Bernstein Brings His Two Hottest Bands to the Jazz Standard This Week

Sexmob – trumpeter Steven Bernstein, saxophonist Briggan Krauss, bassist Tony Scherr and drummer Kenny Wollesen – have been making magically surreal, darkly cinematic sounds since the late 90s. As you will see below, good things happen when they turn up. They’re at the Jazz Standard tomorrow, March 8 and Friday, March 9 with sets at 7:30 and 9:30 PM; $30 cover isn’t too bad considering that the club has no minimums (but good food, incidentally).

Then Bernstein leads his historically-infused, hard-swinging Millennial Territory Orchestra – whose reinventions of Sly Stone songs are a real trip –  there on the 10th and 11th. Check out this lineup: Charlie Burnham on violin; Curtis Fowlkes on trombone; Doug Wieselman on clarinet; Peter Apfelbaum on tenor sax; Erik Lawrence on baritone sax; Matt Munisteri on guitar; Ben Allison on bass; and Ben Perowsky on drums. It’s as if legendary Lower East Side hotspot Tonic – where an empty “luxury” condo now stands – was still open.

Here’s what Sexmob sounded like last July in Prospect Park:

“…a wickedly amusing, entertaining score to the 1925 Italian silent film Maciste All’Inferno…it’s amazing what an epic sound trumpeter/bandleader Steven Bernstein manages to evince from the four voices in his long-running quartet…part of the equation is long, desolate sustained tones; part is echo effects and the rest of it is the reverb on Wollesen’s drums, gongs and assorted percussive implements. On one hand, much of this score seemed like a remake of the band’s 2015 cult classic album Cinema, Circus & Spaghetti: Sexmob Plays Nino Rota, especially the brooding opening sequence. With a very close resemblance to Bernstein’s reinvention of the Amarcord main title theme, the band went slinking along on the moody but trebly pulse of Scherr’s incisive bass and Wollesen’s ominously muted and-four-and tom-tom hits.

Yet as much as the rest of this new score followed the same sonic formula (or tried to – as usual this year, the sound mix here was atrocious, bass and drums way too high in the mix), the themes were more playful than that album’s relentless noir ambience. At the same time, Bernstein’s uneasy but earthily rooted dynamics added a welcome gravitas to the movie’s vaudevillian charm. In brief (you can get the whole thing at IMDB): strongman Maciste, stalked by the devil, ends up in hell, fends off all sorts of cartoonish human/orc types and ends up having a potentially deadly flirtation. All the while, he’s missing his true love and family topside. Will he finally vanquish the hordes of tortured souls hell-bent into making him one of their own?

Wollesen built one of his typical, mystical temple-garden-in-the-mist tableaux with his gongs, and cymbals, and finally his toms, to open the score. It’s a catchy one, and the hooks were as hummable as the two main themes were expansive. In addition to the many variations on the title one, there was also a funky bass octave riff that subtly pushed the music into a similarly hummable uh-oh interlude and then back, spiced here and there with screaming unison riffs from the horns and one achingly menacing spot where Krauss mimicked guitar feedback. But the scrambling and scampering ultimately took a backseat to gloom. For this band, hell is more of a lake of ice than fire.”

They’re saving the fire for the Jazz Standard gigs.

Dark Enigmatic Mediterranean Alchemy from Xylouris White

Xylouris White’s new album Mother – streaming at Spotify – sounds like the Dirty Three, but more Middle Eastern. Swap out Mick Turner’s guitar and Warren Ellis’ violin for George Xylouris’ Cretan laouto, and it all makes sense. As usual, Jim White’s drumming is alternately orchestral, driving, and kaleidoscopic:  few drummers have his sheer musicality. Together the duo make music far more epic than you would think possible.

The album opens with In Medias Res, a nebulous one-chord jam, Xylouris building a rainy thicket of strums and washes as White creates calmly torrential eye-of-the-storm ambience behind him. Only Love opens with a buzzy motorik groove, Xylouris’ expressive baritone intoning over an uneasy rebetiko-tinged, distantly Middle Eastern melody.

Throughout the album, Xylouris’ multitracks deliver all sorts of textures. On Motorcycle Kondities, he uses a stark, lo-fi guitar reverb tone, blending the slightly warpy, bouzouki-like sound of the laouto as this big, enigmatic anthem pounces along, up to a series of machine-gun sniper riffs.

True to its title, Spud’s Garden has a more easygoing, verdant, Greek taverna terrace feel, violin and bagpipe sparely spicing the mix. White’s misterioso flickers on the toms and understatedly ominous beats keep Daphne slinking along behind Xylouris’ brooding vocals and elegantly brooding picking – how do you say Black Angel’s Death Song in Greek?

White’s sepulchral accents on rims and hardware flit above Xylouris’ resonance in the grimly elegaic Achilles Heel. Likewise, scratchy brushing and white noise on the snare drum contrast with Xylouris’ doubletracked thickets throughout Woman From Anogela, up to a final moody clang.

The album’s funniest track is Call and Response, White having a blast peeking out, shooting spitballs and poking holes int Xylouris’ resolute, oud-like ambience. The album’s final track is Lullaby, a muted, brooding modal levantine theme, White’s spare, echoey accents evoking a Middle Eastern goblet drum. Fans of postrock, rebetiko, Middle Eastern music and psychedelia have a lot to get lost in here. Xylouris White’s next show is on March 10 at 7 PM at the Loft at UC San Diego, Price Center East, 4th Floor, 9500 Gilman Drive in LaJolla, California; cover is $10; UCSD students get in free.

Tasty Psychedelic Tropicalia and a Union Pool Album Release Show by Renata Zeiguer

Renata Zeiguer sings in a balmy, dreamy high soprano and writes tropical psychedelic rock songs that often slink their way toward the noir edges of soul music. Yet as Lynchian as the guitar textures can be, her music isn’t gloomy – if there’s such a thing as happy noir, it’s her sound. And her new album, Old Ghost – streaming at Bandcamp – sounds like she had a great time making it. She’s playing the release show this Feb 23 at 11 PM at Union Pool; cover is $12.

“You’ve got a grip on consolation, a heavenly whip, I know,” Zeiguer intones cajolingly in the album’s opening cut, Wayside, which rises from a simple, catchy bossa-tinged vamp to a catchy, anthemic backbeat sway. Once you get past the jarring out-of-tune guitars and lo-fi synth on the intro to Bug, it morphs into a starry, ELO-ish romp with a gritty undercurrent. That uneasy catchiness pervades Below, from its Ellingtonian intro, to its lemon-ice chorus-box guitar riffs and gently pulsing samba rhythm.

After All comes across as a noisier take on Abby Travis-style orchestral noir – or 90s cult favorites Echobelly at their noisiest and dirtiest. Zeiguer’s coy melismas over the altered retro 60s noir soul backdrop of Dreambone evoke Nicole Atkins at her most darkly surreal – Zeiguer’s fellow Brooklynite Ivy Meissner also comes to mind.

The swaying Follow Me Down, awash in uneasily starry reverb guitars, depicts a lizard “Steadily slithering, steadily, patiently swallowing me whole.” The song’s mix of guitar textures – burning and distorted, keening, and lushly tremoloing – is absolutely luscious.

Neck of the Moon contrasts insistent syncopation and offhandedly noisy, flaring guitar work with Zeiguer’s signature starlit sonics. The dichotomy is similar in They Are Growing, pulsar guitar twinkles and pulses lingering over a brisk new wave shuffle beat. The album winds up with its title track, Gravity (Old Ghost), a steady, bittersweet lament about something that’s “only dissipating over time,” set to a catchy, Motown-inflected groove.

This is a great playlist for hanging out with friends on a smoky evening, adrift in the bubbling, percolating textures of the guitars and keys, Zeiguer’s comfortingly calm yet irrepressibly soaring vocals percolating through the haze. It would make a good soundtrack to that Netflix show about the weed delivery guy – now what’s that called?

A Characteristically Creepy New Album From the Great Kotorino

You could make a very strong case that Kotorino are the best New York band of the last ten years. Combining circus rock and latin noir, with frequent detours into gothic Americana, their sound grew more lavishly orchestrated as the group expanded. Their new album Sea Monster, streaming at Bandcamp, brings the band full circle to their earliest years in quietly uneasy parlor rock, a vehicle for frontman/guitarist Jeff Morris’ allusively grim narratives. Kotorino don’t have any shows coming up, but Charming Disaster – Morris and singer/uke player Ellia Bisker’s devilish murder ballad side project – are playing Pine Box Rock Shop this Friday night, Feb 16 at 11:30 PM.

“Like a broken calculator, they tried, and tried, but never got her number,” Morris and Bisker harmonize over an unexpectedly funky strut as the new album’s opening track, Hell Yeah, gets underway. The horn section kicks in, then there’s one of the misterioso interludes the band love so much. As usual, there are as many levels of meaning here, a sideways shout-out to an enterprising girl in the 21st century Manhattan gig economy:

Downtown to the tarpits
Where the hedge funds employ mystics
She said it’s been real in the abstract,
But I want to break out of this contract

Now That I’m Dead, a slowly swaying, crescendoing soul ballad, is next. The glockenspiel against Morris’ grittily clanging old Gibson hollowbody is a typical, neat Kotorino touch. The band shift between a muted, suspenseful pulse and bright, horn-spiced flair in the increasingly ominous travelogue Daddy’s on the Road: all those doppler effects are irresistibly fun.

Rags to Riches is classic Kotorino, a creepy circus waltz: without spoiling the plot, the theme is be careful what you wish for. Likewise, Breakdown has a darkly jaunty, brassy oldtimey swing: it’s part escape anthem, part dayjob hell story.

Too Bad (You Haven’t Eyes Like Us Owls) is the album’s most haunting track, a brooding noir mambo ablaze with brass, pouncing along on the slashes from Morris’ guitar, with a succession of surreal vocal cameos from the women in the band (who also comprise violinists Molly White and Estelle Bajou, tuba players Jeanie Schroder and Liz Prince, and singing saw player Caroline Ritson).

Patricia Santos’ mournful cello infuses the brooding, metaphorically charged waltz Planes Land:

The higher you go
The thinner the air
Head in the clouds
Spoils the view

Right Way Wrong has an emphatically jagged latin soul groove that rises to a moodily lush chorus, an allusively imagistic criminals-on-the-run tale with a cynically gruff Stefan Zeniuk bass sax solo. Fall Asleep But Don’t Let Me Go isn’t the only shipwreck tale Morris has written, but it’s the gloomiest, rising out of hazy ambience to a towering, 6/8 sway and then back, with an absolutely delicious contrapuntal vocal arrangement.

The title cut closes the album, Mike Brown;s chugging quasi-ska bassline giving way to a surreal, tropically psychedelic interlude with coy allusions to the Beatles and maybe the Boomtown Rats. Name another band alive who can do all this and a lot more in the span of just this many songs, You’ll see this here on the best albums of 2018 page at the end of the year.

Brilliant Violinist Alicia Svigals and Pianist Uli Geissendoerfer Reinvent Haunting Songs Rescued From the Holocaust

Moshe Beregovski was sort of the Soviet Alan Lomax. But there were a couple of major differences in the careers of the 20th century’s two greatest musicologists. Lomax received deservedly worldwide acclaim for sleuthing out folk tunes across the country, and eventually around the globe. And some of the artists he discovered, like Muddy Waters, became stars.

Beregovski, whose research and sense of adventure were just as keen, paid with his life, and most of the folk musicians he recorded were murdered. They were killed in the Holocaust; Beregovski, his health shattered after a long, brutal prison term in the gulag, died broke and virtually unknown in 1961. His crime? Recording Jewish music. 

Since Beregovski’s archives in the Ukraine were rediscovered in the 1990s, musicians from around the world have plunged into a world that was for a long time thought to have been lost forever. Now, iconic klezmer violinist Alicia Svigals – a founding member of the Klezmatics – and perennially eclectic pianist Uli Geissendoerfer have teamed up for a brand-new album, The Beregovski Suite, a frequently radical reinvention of a total of seventeen rare songs from the archive. The result is a gorgeous, chillingly bittersweet triumph of daunting scholarship and lyrical musicianship – if you think Svigals was pretty sensational in the Klezmatics, wait til you hear her now. They’re playing the album release show tonight, Feb 4 at 7 PM at Joe’s Pub; cover is $20. With songs like these, who needs the Super Bowl?

These melodies leap out at you. We’re used to hearing poorly digitized , probably fourth or fifth-generation copies of this stuff, which was recorded on the fly  to begin with. This album  has a breathtakingly immediate, pristine quality. Although there’s accordion here – Iliya Magalnik is featured on several tracks – the presence of the piano adds considerable majesty and unexpectedly syncretic accents from around the world to the material.

The album – which isn’t officially out yet and hasn’t hit the usual online spots – opens with Lightning, a brisk minor-key dance. Svigals’ sinewy, bounding lines and shivery melismas soar over the pulse of the accordion, the piano anchoring the music with a heavy-spring bounce. Svigals throws off sparks of microtones throughout Dawn, a neoromantic waltz, Geissendoerfer switching between piano and toy piano to ramp up the surrealism. The brooding Lament For a King makes a good segue, Geissendoerfer’s low-key chords behind Svigals’ meticulous yet ferally tremoloing ornamentation.

By contrast, Iliyad, another waltz, has a playful, almost devious strut which becoms more wistful when the accordion kicks in; then the piano leads the rest of the group in an unexpectedly Lynchian direction. It will give you goosebumps.

The bracing Fugue for B has a cleverly acerbic baroque arrangement, Svigals digging in with a practically crushing intensity on the final verse, up to a spine-tingling coda. She reins in her melismatics somewhat for the quieter but no less plaintive, somewhat prayerful take of The Plea.

The surrealism reaches even higher with the disjoined intro of First Night, its uneasy close harmonies smoothing out into a jaunty, celebratory dance. The revelry continues with Market Day, with Vanderlei Pereira on pandeiro, Geissendoerfer adding an unexpected ragtime interlude. Getting groceries has never been so much fun! His jazz voicings contrast with Svigals’ mesmerizing, edgy chromatics and microtones throughout The Lover’s Dance, a slow, moody hora intro of sorts.

Rumshinky’s Bulgar, by Joseph Rumshinsky, comes across as a mashup of the early 20th century Jewish vaudeville that he made his name in and the darker – dare one say more relevant? – sounds of the old country. The duo go deep into that milieu with the plaintive Winter Dance, its wintry pizzicato and eerie belltone piano.

The duo follow Patshtants, an insistent, pulsing miniature in the Middle Eastern freygish scale, with the lively peek-a-boo phrasing of Kinder in Shul – yeah, these kids are up to no good. Svigals takes a rare turn on vocalese in Conversation With the Rebbe, s shapeshifting, pensively dynamic  minor-key song.

A Hero’s Report has an aptly emphatic intensity; after that, the unexpected Celtic tinges of Big Bear come as quite a surprise. The album concludes with a brief reprise of the opening tune. On one hand, this is the kind of salute that Beregovski deserves. Without him, these frequently heartwrenching melodies would no longer exist. And of course, the elephant in the room is how many more songs like this would we be able to enjoy if the people who played them into Beregovski’s wax cylinder recorder hadn’t been murdered?

Eerily Glimmering, Cinematic Nightscapes From Suss

Cinematic instrumental quintet Suss are the missing link between Brian Eno and Ennio Morricone – or the Lost Patrol without the drums. Which makes sense, considering that guitarist/bandleader Pat Irwin got his start with enigmatically loping and prowling 80s instrumentalists the Raybeats, but since then has made a mark in film music – when not playing in one version or another of the B-52’s, that is. The new group’s debut album, aptly titled Ghost Box is streaming at Bandcamp.

Never mind the album – if there’s any act out there that really makes their song titles come alive, it’s these guys. The band – which also comprises guitarist Bob Holmes, pedal steel player Jonathan Gregg, keyboardist Gary Lieb, and William Garrett – are  playing the release show tomorrow, Feb 4 at 8 PM for free at the Secret Theatre, 4402 23rd St. in Long Island City. Since the 7 train isn’t running, take the E or G to Court Square; the cozy black-box space is about three  blocks away.

The opening track, Wichita begins with a lingering big-sky riff answered by a wash of steel, then the echoes begin to gently swoosh and clang through the mix. Almost imperceptibly, wisps and flickers of steel and guitar begin wafting over the loop. It’s hypnotic to the extreme.

Opening with and then shadowed by a haze of feedback, Late Night Call is a slow, nostalgic conversation between guitar and steel, Likewise, Big Sky alternates between oscillating, slightly distorted washes, blippy electric piano fragments and sparse Old West riffs.

Twangy Lynchian guitar chords intersperse within a distantly menacing Angelo Badalamemti-style vamp in Rain. The band pick up the pace, at least to the extent that they ever do, with Laredo, putting reverbtoned 80s electric piano out front of the shifting clouds of guitar and spare spaghetti western licks.

Oscillating loops, disembodied dialogue, jagged clangs. resonant tremolo phrases and finally some gently acerbic, bluesy resonator guitar blend over a muted beat in Gunfighter. The album closes with a starrier, livelier, more expansive reprise of the opening theme. Drift off to your own private Twin Peaks Lodge with this.

An Epic, Nebulously Haunting Oceanic Art-Rock Suite Winds Up This Year’s Prototype Festival

The annual Prototype Festival began as a forum for avant garde opera but has grown to encompass lavish choral suites, dystopic Balkanic epics and noir cabaret. Last night at Here’s black-box theatre in SoHo, the performance was a dark, similarly eclectic rock show with projections for a backdrop.

Violinist Carla Kihlstedt’s career spans from classical, new music and the far expanses of jazz to the brooding rock of her Rabbit Rabbit Radio ensemble. This time out she led her seven-piece group – her husband Matthias Bossi on drums; Jeremy Flower and Michael Abraham on guitars (the former doubling on keys); Ariel Parkington of the Parkington Sisters on violin, Kristin Slipp on backing vocals and George Ban-Weiss on bass – through her new, distantly stormy, nebulously kinetic suite Black Inscription, which explores oceanic eco-catastrophe.

While the overall atmosphere remained on the somber side, tempos and meters shifted and varied considerably throughout the more-or-less contiguous suite. Bossi propelled the beast with remarkable restraint, taking into consideration the space’s intimate, rather dry sonics.

Likewise, Kihlstedt and Parkington’s violin lines were terse and purposeful, whether building angst-fueled, emphatic crescendos or more atmospheric harmonies. The polyrhythmic interweave between voices – pretty much everyone in the band sang – and the instruments added to the relentless unease.

The group opened with a twinkling, undulating, funk-tinged psychedelic soul instrumental that brought to mind early 70s Mies Davis, or a Roy Ayers Film score. From there the group worked spare, alternating voices over odd meters, with a 80s Peter Gabriel-style anthemic sensibility. Then they went more hypnotic and intense, bringing to mind early 80s Siouxsie & the Banshees without the microtonal vocals.

The suite’s centerpiece was the title number, a slow, towering, Pink Floyd-style theme referencing what appeared to be some sort of ominous seaside motif. That symphonic grandeur would recur later in the suite, as did that reference, in one of a handful of voiceovers by a veteran deep-sea diver.

Lingering, occasionally flaring minor-key guitar melodies rose and fell over a fat low end sometimes taken even further into the depths by the bass’s octave pedal or envelope-shifting effects. Meanwhile, the strings, swooshy keyboards and the womens’ voices built lushly kaleidoscopic astringencies that alluded to but never rose to fever pitch. This was more about shock and awe than sheer terror, although there were a couple of detours into David Lynch film score-style menace.

The visuals and voiceovers took a backseat to the music: glistening sea life in the depths and infrequent detritus quickly gave way to geometric overlays, while the narrator mused about the nuts and bolts – and thrills – of descending far beneath the waves. If we’re lucky, the Prototype Festival folks had the presence of mind to record one of these performances so that everyone who missed it can enjoy it. This show was definitely worth releasing as a live album – and will reprised today to conclude the festival, with performances at 4 and 9:30 PM. Tickets are pricy – $30 – but the show is worth it, and they’re still available as of this morning.

Crooked Horse Bring Their Dark Americana to an Unexpected Friday Night Spot

Crooked Horse play disarmingly direct, catchy Nashville gothic and dark Americana. Their debut album is up at Bandcamp as a name-your-price download. They’re playing this Friday night, Jan 12 at 10:30 PM at Pine Box Rock Shop.

The album’s briskly marching opening track, Maybe, is a kiss-off anthem: it could be an acoustic version of a Walkabouts tune. “Maybe it’s everybody that leaves me with only maybe,” frontwoman Liz Rymes muses in her husky, impassioned voice. Guitarist Neal Johnson fires off a nimble flatpicking solo, then backs away for Bridget Nault’s river of minor-key accordion.

You Have to Know is a little less pissed off – “You’ll be better on your own” is the chorus – set to a catchy acoustic guitar loop over percussionist Aaron Kakos’ loping groove. The band pick up the pace with Omen and its tasty acoustic guitar multitracks: when the “wind blows in like an omen,” it’s obviously not carrying anything good.

Johnson sets a spiky, moody country-blues ambience in The Poet: “You crackle as you speak, the poet of defeat,” Rymes accuses, then the accordion and drums finally kick in. They break out the electric guitars in the snarling shuffle All For You, a brooding escape anthem – the question is who’s getting away, and to what.

The matter-of-factly defiant shuffle We Live Small makes a refreshingly optimistic anthem for the Trump-era depression: “We live small, but we live well,” Rymes asserts. The ominous vocal harmonies in the eerily strolling A Place Like This underscore the gloom, a chronicle of everything that’s out of reach in a dead-end town.

“Take a deep breath in the dark and just trust,” Rymes encourages in the moodily bouncing number after that. With its soaring, ghostly backing vocals, the scampering, bluegrass-tinged Lace Curtains is the catchiest and arguably best track on the album: “I don’t believe,” is the mantra. The album ends with Rotten, a sparse, hypnotic, anguished dirge. Catch this band on the way up before word gets out and you won’t be able to get in to see them.

A Riveting, Exhilaratingly Dark Lincoln Center Album Release Show by Brian Carpenter’s Ghost Train Orchestra

It’s impossible to think of a better way to start the year than watching Brian Carpenter’s Ghost Train Orchestra slink and swing their way through the darkly surreal album release show for their new one, Book of Rhapsodies Vol. 2 at Jazz at Lincoln Center earlier this week. In a sense, the record brings the former Beat Circus leader full circle with his noir roots, in the process rescuing all kinds of eerie, genre-shattering 1930s and 40s tunes from obscurity.

From the first uneasy, enigmatic solo of the night – from alto saxophonist Andy Laster – to the last one, a furtively expansive one from tenor player Ben Kono – this mighty seventeen-piece edition of the band were obviously jumping out of their shoes to be playing this material. Since before the group’s wildly popular 2013 Book of Rhapsodies album, trumpeter/conductor Carpenter has dedicated himself to resurrecting the work of little-known carnivalesque composers, most notably Reginald Foresythe, a British pianist who was more than a half-century ahead of his time.

Recast in Carpenter’s new arrangement, one of that composer’s numbers sounded like a beefed-up swing version of a noir surf number by Beninghove’s Hangmen. A serpentine, bolero-tinged tune again evoked that current-day cinematic band, drummer Rob Garcia having fun rattling the traps in tandem with the moody low-end pulse of bassist Michael Bates and tuba player Ron Caswell.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, guitarist Avi Bortnick added the occasional marionettish ping or pop to goose the music when it threatened to go completely dark. The rest of the band – Curtis Hasselbring on trombone, Dennis Lichtman  on clarinet, Mazz Swift on violin, and Emily Bookwalter on viola – were bolstered by a six-piece choir including but not limited to the soaring Aubrey Johnson and Tammy Scheffer. The extra voices added deviously incisive counterpoint on all ends of the spectrum as well.

There were two swinged-out arrangements of Chopin pieces, the second an impromptu, which featured the night’s most sizzling solo, a lickety-split series of harmonically-spiced cascaces from Swift. She’d reprise that with a little more brevity during an epic take of Raymond Scott’s Celebration on the Planet Mars, along with similarly punchy solos from Hasselbring, Kono, Laster, Garcia and Caswell. A couple of romping, swinging, sometimes vaudevillian and occasionally cartoonish Alec Wilder tunes gave the band something approximating comic relief. Watch this space for a more in-depth look at the amazing new album.