New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Category: noir music

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.

Haunting, Purposeful, Hypnotic New Trio Album From Pianist Dahveed Behroozi

Pianist Davheed Behroozi‘s new album Echos – streaming at Sunnyside Records – is a magically immersive, often haunting, stunningly improvisational suite of sorts. Behroozi likes to cast a stone and then minimalistically parse the ripples, joined by a sympatico rhythm section of bassist Thomas Morgan and drummer Billy Mintz. Interestingly, it’s Morgan – who’s done similarly brilliant work with Bill Frisell, especially – who pierces this nocturnal veil more often than not. Mintz flashes his plates for drizzle and snowstorm ambience more than he drives the music forward: rhythms here are tidal rather than torrential.

The trio open with Imagery, a broodingly drifting, subtly polyrhythmic, frequently rubato tone poem that draws obvious comparisons to Keith Jarrett and never strays far from a central mode. Yet the shifts in timbre, dynamics and the trio’s elastic use of space are stunning, all the more so for being so minute. The moment where Morgan steps back to get a Weegee angle on this shadowy tableau about midway through will take your breath away.

Track two, Chimes comes across as a more dizzyingly rhythmic variation on the same theme, like a waterwheel on an off-center axle, a perpetual-motion machine wavering but ultimately unstoppable. The band revisit the theme toward the end of the record with a more stern, lingering approach.

Gilroy (the California municipality which produces a major percentage of the world’s garlic, in case you weren’t aware) seems like an absolutely haunted place, if the album’s third track is to be taken at face value. Again, the triangulation between the trio’s minimalistic, emphatic rhythmic gestures is staggered just enough to raise the suspense factor. Behroozi brings up the lights a little with a bit of a churning drive and a few wry glissandos as Mintz mists the windows with his cymbals.

Mintz’s cymbal bell hits add coy mystique as Behroozi ventures little by little from a circling pattern in Alliteration: you could call it Tiny Steps. Then with Sendoff he completely fips the script, building a murkily raging stormscape, torrents from Morgan and Mintz finally breaking the stygian levee.

Royal Star is the album’s most unselfconsciously gorgeous, mysterious number, Dark Side-era Pink Floyd done in 12/8 over Mintz’s steady brushwork, Morgan’s terse upward flickers in subtle contrast with the bandleader’s saturnine resonance.

Behroozi’s much more trad, bluesy-infused rivulets in Tricks come as a real shock: maybe this unexpectedly upbeat quasi-ballad is a pressure valve for all the meticulous focus of what’s been played up to here. The trio bring the record full circle with TDB (that’s their initials). a calmly minimalistic, benedictory coda. Play this with the lights out but not if you’re trying to drift off to sleep. And let’s hope it won’t be so long between albums for Behroozi next time out.

Calm Transcendence, Gravitas and Haunting Film Noir Sonics on Wadada Leo Smith’s Latest Epic Triple-Disc Album

It’s hard to imagine another artist who has been as prolific and perennially relevant in his seventh decade as Wadada Leo Smith. His epic Civil Rights Era-themed 2013 triple-disc set Ten Freedom Summers is probably one of the hundred best albums ever made in any style of music.

Occupy Wall Street? Why not Occupy the World, as Smith suggested with a transcendently good orchestral album. He’s also saluted America’s National Parks, composed a rapt, oceanic Great Lakes suite, played huge amounts of solo Monk on trumpet, and now has a brand new triple-disc set of often darkly inspiring duo and trio recordings, Sacred Ceremonies, streaming at Spotify, It’s music to get completely lost in and will give you hope at a time when we really, really need it.

The sad undercurrent here is that we lost the iconic Milford Graves last year. In a crushing stroke of irony, it was a heart ailment that claimed the greatest cardiac medical pioneer to ever play the drums. Fortuitously, two of these discs feature Graves, the first in a duo with Smith, the other in a trio set with bassist Bill Laswell. In between, Smith and Laswell explore less friendly atmospheres.

Graves’ shamanic toms, oscillating cymbals and mystical rimwork back Smith’s characteristically spacious, terse lines on the opening disc’s five expansive tracks. Sometimes Graves’ boom is such that it’s as if he’s playing a tapan barrel drum from the Balkans. In what could have been a stroke of intuition on Smith’s part, he gives his bandmate centerstage much of the time, when he’s not channeling somber 19th century blues and gritty variations, mournful foghorn washes, austerely sailing lines punctuated by deft trills and clusters, and the occasional call of the wild.

The two slowly bring in a fond, mutedly suspenseful ballad, in just short of fifteen minutes, in the fourth track. As the two make their way upward, part of Graves’ kit sounds like a giant tabla from the great beyond. And his chugging, gnawa-like cymbals behind Smith’s coy Stevie Wonder paraphrases in the final duo number are a stunningly surreal touch.

The Smith/Laswell duos on disc two are 180 degrees from that, typically edging toward a Bob Belden post-Miles noir atmosphere, with a more defined low/high dichotomy and less interplay. To Laswell’s infinite credit, he chills – literally – in the background as Smith takes flight, frequently with a mute. Feeling some low pressure here, the trumpeter picks up the energy and the catchy riffage significantly. If you want to hear Wadada Leo Smith playing parts – well, a little bit – this is it. Laswell loves loves loves that flange pedal, or its digital equivalent, set to deep freeze, and sticks with it, sometimes in tandem with a wah, a loop box and an arsenal of light sabers. Smith’s utterly Lynchian chromatics over spare pedalpoint in Mysterious Night and then the concluding Minnie Riperton elegy are the highlights.

Smith’s spine-tingling flares and Graves’ churning, kaleidescopic murk (who knew such an oxymoron could exist? He did) pair off over Laswell’s warp and wooze to open the third disc, essentially a reprise of the second disc with more of a dystopic drive. Smith holds the whole thing together, more or less, playing with a mute, a white-knuckle angst and a clenched-teeth smile as Graves motors along the stygian underground, Laswell’s robotically cold calculations piercing the veil now and again. Yet Smith’s saturnine solo intro to the fourth track here could be the most heartbreakingly beautiful moment on the whole record.

Disturbios Recall a Darker, More Dangerous, More Diverse New York Rock Scene

Disturbios play darkly cinematic surf rock, like a more stripped-down Morricone Youth with cynical hip-hop tinges. You might expect that from a couple of veterans of the seedier side of New York rock. Guitarist Matt Verta-Ray has been kicking around the reverb tank since his days with Speedball Baby back in the 90s, joined by Rocio Verta-Ray on what sounds like a vintage Vox Continental organ. Their debut album is streaming at Bandcamp.

The album’s brief opening track, Rough Rider starts out as hip-hop and then goes twinkling around the roller rink with Rocio’s swirly organ and Matt’s spare reverb guitar. The monster hit here is Surf Gnossienne, a slow surf remake of Erik Satie’s Gnossienne No. 1, an iconic piece from the creepy-classical canon. They seem to be using a certain Brooklyn band’s cumbia version as a prototype, right down to the flickers of the castanets.

“I never shook babies, I never beat no ladies,” Rocio insists, but everything else was pretty much up for grabs as she tells it in Jesus I Was Evil – right down to that funny Rick James quote. Matt builds a wasp-in-a-jar scenario in the next track, Starr, a broodingly rippling noir soul theme.

They launch into a snarling mashup of Sticky Fingers-era Stones shuffle and, say, the Flamin’ Groovies in Little Bird Got Swallowed. After the hypnotic, macabre cumbia vamp See-Thru Rhonda, the duo go back to vintage soul-surf for Summer Loves.

Rocio’s deadpan vocals in the stomping electric take of Jimmy Reed’s Big Boss Man are pretty priceless. The two hit a slinky latin soul groove in I Love You and close the album with Dear Boy, a skewed take on early 60s girl-group pop. New York used to be full of bands who played all these sounds. Good thing somebody’s keeping this stuff alive.

Haunting, Stunningly Individualistic, Exotic New Orchestral and Piano Works From Konstantia Gourzi

Anájikon, the new album from Konstantia Gourzi – streaming at Spotify – will blow your mind. Gourzi’s often haunting compositions bring to mind sounds from traditions as far-flung as her native Greece, Armenia, Iran and India as well as contemporary minimalism. The rhythms here are strong and prominent, with heavy use of percussion. There’s more of an emphasis on melody than harmony, and Gourzi’s tunes are rich with chromatics and implied melody. There’s a careening intensity to much of the orchestration.

Gourzi conducts the Lucerne Academy Orchestra in the achingly lush, often utterly Lynchian Two Angels in the White Garden. A dramatically dancing percussion riff – and a hint of Richard Strauss – punctuate the mournfully tolling and then enigmatically swirling, allusively chromatic interludes of the first part, Eviction. The rhythms are more muted in Exodus, the brooding swirl of the orchestra receding for a hauntingly minimalist piano theme anchored by ominous bass and flickers throughout the ensemble. Part three, Longing has a dense, stormy pulse, akin to Alan Hovhaness in a blustery moment. The orchestra rise from stillness over looming, pianissimo drums to a bit of a Respighi-ish dance and then contented atmospherics in the conclusion, The White Garden.

The Minguet Quartett – violinists Ulrich Isfort and Annette Reisinger, violist Tony Nys and cellist Matthias Diener – first contribute Gourzi’s String Quartet No. 3, The Angel in the Blue Garden. The first movement, The Blue Rose begins with an insistent, staccato violin pulse anchoring achingly beautiful, lyrical cello and then a similarly melancholic, modal, Armenian-tinged viola line; it ends surprisingly calmly. Movement two, The Blue Bird pairs spare, broodingly soaring cello against fluttery echoes from the rest of the quartet – anxious wings, maybe?

The Blue Moon: The Bright Side is more minimal and hypnotic, high strings shimmering and weaving an otherworldly melody over a persistent cello pedal figure. The muted mystery of Turning, which follows, is over too soon. The Dark Side begins with a circling, distantly Balkan-tinged dance, pizzicato cello and viola answering each other beneath plaintive lustre.

Violist Nils Mönkemeyer and pianist William Youn close the record with a stunningly and starkly lyrical performance of Gourzi’s Three Dialogues For Viola and Piano, the most vividly Hovahaness-esque work here. Part one has variations on an allusive, poignant melody descending over simple, alternately lingering and insistently rhythmic piano accents. A catchy, circling bell-like interweave persists and finally rises in part two. Part three is at first shivery and otherworldly, then Youn runs a rippling riff beneath Mönkemeyer’s austerely looping, sailing lines. If this is your introduction to this brilliant and fascinatingly original composer, you are in for a treat: this might be the best album of the year so far.

Slinky Lynchian Hustles in Central Park

The Dark Sky Hustlers got the short end of the stick here, competing for sonic space with an amazing jazz quartet who earned a rave review for their show in Central Park a few weeks back. But the Hustlers hustle for their space: they’re an excellent band, and you should see them if you’re in the park anytime soon.

They’re a duo: a ponytailed guitarist with a bottomless bag of classic funk riffs, and a drummer. Their webpage doesn’t identify either by name. They like to play the mall, south of the 72nd St. entrance on the west side. Thursday evening they were at the statue at the southernmost end where the mall deadends into an east-west roadway.

You should have heard the applause springing up from pretty much everywhere within earshot after they’d finished a haunting, practically 25-minute long, often outright Lynchian jam, the high point of who knows how many sets they’d played that day. Their shtick is loopmusic. The guitarist will lay down a rhythm track over the drummer’s steady beat, then he’ll play a long, crescendoing series of leads over it. Sometimes there will be more than one rhythm track, or lead track. This particular one was built around a a bunch of minor seventh chords, more complex than the hypnotic two-chord jams the two often fall back on. And it was a lot slinkier, and more unexpectedly low-key and sometimes sinister, than anything else they played during about an hour worth of music. Who knew they had it in them? Maybe everybody who’d seen them before here.

The other instrumentals were good too. They ventured from pretty straight-up, strutting hard funk to more undulating, soul-infused, Booker T-inspired vamps and then back. They will probably be back there the next time you’re in the area, Saturday afternoon is pretty much a guarantee unless it’s raining. .

Who knew that in the spring of 2021, Central Park would turn into the Village Vanguard, Madison Square Garden and Carnegie Hall combined? Such is the state of live music in this city at the moment. The arts, and the economy in general are booming in states from Florida to Idaho and many points in between, but here in what used to be the intellectual capitol of North America, they’re on life support. We will need an impeachment of Andrew Cuomo, or some other end to his regime of terror and dictatorial whim, in order to find a way back to this city’s former glory as a magical musical melting pot. Thanks to the bravery of bands like this, and the passersby who support them, live music is still theoretically alive here.

A Hauntingly Relevant World War I Concept Album From Bare Wire Son

Multi-instrumentalist Olin Janusz records under the name Bare Wire Son. Whether kinetic or atmospheric, his music has a relentlessly bleak intensity. One obvious comparison is the gloomy, cinematic processionals of Godspeed You Black Emperor. Other dark postrock acts, from Mogwai to Swans come to mind. His latest album Off Black – streaming at Bandcamp – is a World War I song cycle, often utilizing texts from journals by mothers who lost their sons. Janusz is a one-man, lo-fi orchestra here: everything is awash in reverb, vocals often buried deep in these slow but turbulent rivers of sound.

The parallels between the Great War and the lockdown are stunning, making this album all the more relevant. Chemical warfare played a major role: poison gas in 1918, deadly hypodermics 103 years later. Propaganda campaigns of unprecedented proportions are central to both events. The drive to get the British and the US involved in the war was inflamed by stories of hideous atrocities on the part of the “Huns,” as the Germans were rebranded. The ubiquitous, multibillion-dollar ad blitz promoting the needle of death also relies on many fictions, from grotesquely inaccurate computer models, to blood tests rigged to generate false positives.

The album’s opening track, Involuntary is a crescendoing conflagration, possibly a parody of a Catholic hymn, with a cruelly cynical coda. Percussion flails out a sadistic lash beat over the organ textures in Cenotaph, struggling to rise against a merciless march that finally hits a murderous peak.

Janusz assembles Saved Alone around a series of menacingly anthemic, twangy reverb guitar riffs and whispered vocals, shifting from a lulling organ interlude to a roughhewn crescendo. From there he segues into CSD, a brief, portentous, organ-infused tone poem.

Simple, ominous guitar arpeggios linger over an industrial backdrop of cello, percussion and organ in Ends Below: the visceral shock about two thirds of the way in is too good to give away. The Gore is portrayed more minimalistically and enigmatically than you would probably expect, resonant washes of slide guitar and organ behind a crashing guitar loop

Close-harmonied organ textures and cello drift through Antiphon, joined by guitar clangs and slashes in The Bellows and extending through the dissociative flutters and funereal angst of Kampus. Spare, Lynchian guitar figures return in Fingernest, an emphatic, pulsing dirge rising to Comfortably Numb proportions.

Heavy Grey is the closest thing to indie rock here, although it reaches an anthemic vastness at the end. Janusz trudges to the end of the narrative with the hypnotic Red Glass and then a quasi-baroque organ theme cynically titled Voluntary, This is one of the best albums of 2021 and arguably the most haunting one so far.