New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Category: noir music

Satoko Fujii and Natsuki Tamura Keep Hope Alive With a Visionary, Otherworldly Album

What do musicians do when their careers, and their sources of income, have been stolen from them by the lockdowners? Pianist Satoko Fujii and trumpeter Natsuki Tamura came to the point where the only option was to turn their Tokyo home into a recording studio..and started putting out one amazing album after another. Their latest, Keshin, is streaming at Bandcamp. It’s a gorgeous and erudite record, packed with humor and horror, and a resolute determination. It’s transcendent in the purest sense: this is clearly what these two road warriors are doing to stay sane. Fujii and Tamura most likely do not see themselves as heroes, but there’s genuine heroism in their music: running the gamut of possible emotional reactions, they offer incredibly inspiring perseverance and hope at this pivotal moment in history.

They might also be doing this because they sense that the forces of sanity and compassion are going to win this battle. As the ugly statistics continue to pour in from Europe – thousands dead, hundreds of thousands maimed – the needle of death is dead in the water. Someday soon, we’ll be able to listen to this album both as portent and celebration, as dark as it may sound now.

The first track, Busy Day, starts out ridiculously funny: it’s not fair to give the joke away. The bustle from there never stops: very precise, very tongue-in-cheek harmonies, Fujii getting sick of the whole thing and thinking again and again of smashing it to bits, Tamura delivering a handful of withering, machinegunning, goosebump-inducing solos. He’s the Japanese Peter Evans…or, Peter Evans is the American Natsuki Tamura.

Track two, Donten has Tamura playing variations on a catchy, easygoing theme as Fujii lingers in the ominous lows and eventually cedes centerstage completely. She returns with spare, guarded minimalism as Tamura refuses to relent, then goes deep into the cave, as she’s been doing lately, cascading and quietly lamenting: when is this madness going to end? The shivering low-high contrasts afterward are as haunting as anything released this year.

Fujii opens Dreamer as a solo, icily Messiaenic lockstep pavane: subtext, anybody? Tanura’s shininess overhead dovetails perfectly. Three Scenes is surreal to the extreme: Tamura begins with rubbery bubble-rubbing squeaks against Fujii’s chilly, emphatic chords and then reaches for the sky as she parses creepy chromatics and an offhandedly hellish bell choir. The reprise of the sotto-voce stroll from the previous number isn’t lost here, although it seems like more of a real victory this time.

The two maintain the horrorstricken/calmly indomitable dichotomy in the album’s title track: it’s the great lost next-to-last segment from the Quartet For the End of Time, at least until Fujii gets all the nervous tension out of her system and brings back the carillonesque solemnity.

The dichotomy between intense piano agitation and determined, optimistic trumpet is less severe, more minimalistically auspicous in the next-to-last number, Drop, although Tamura’s signal for a flamencoish theme soon reaches incendiary heights. Husband and wife close yet another brilliant album with Sparrow Dance, a shadow version of the playful opening track: trouble is still afoot in this twisted space, and it can strike anywhere, particularly as Fujii develops a macabre vortex. She has two other albums out recently which are contenders for best record of 2021 and this makes three.

More Dark Retro Soul From Nick Waterhouse

Nick Waterhouse has been one of the prime movers in the retro soul movement for over a decade. His latest album Promenade Blue – streaming at Bandcamp – is a welcome addition to that consistently strong, purist body of work, focusing more on the noir side of that sound than usual here. You know the drill: reverb on everything, harmony singers who punch in on the chorus, trebly guitars and melodic bass playing through vintage amps, and nonstop catchy hooks.

With the opening track, Place Names, Waterhouse reinvents pre-Motown soul with stark strings in lieu of the kind of wafting orchestral sonics that Phil Spector would have used. And Waterhouse is more of a crooner than most artists from that era. At about four minutes, the song gives him a chance to chill and reflect on better times…as those of us who remember the glory days before March 16, 2020 have probably been doing in the time since.

The Spanish Look doesn’t have anything remotely Spanish about it, although it does have a lot of fevered Elvis in it, hey heh, mmm hmmm. Waterhouse goes back to a roughhewn, vampy early 60s milieu with Vincentine, complete with tantalizingly brief, blazing Chicago blues guitar breaks.

He paints a doomed, down-and-out Tom Waits tableau in the next track, Medicine, over a Lynchian guitar twang. Very Blue is the album’s best song, a gorgeous early 60s Orbison noir song complete with desperately hammering piano, bittersweet major/minor changes….and flurrying early ELO strings. “I remember trying hard just to wake you up,” Waterhouse intones – and the rest is history.

Elvis goes to see the gypsy in Silver Bracelet, set to a tinkly Vegas noir backdrop. Promene Bleu, a quasi title track, makes for a tasty instrumental mashup of Django Reinhardt and oldschool soul with a smoky tenor sax break. The noir tropes reach parody pitch in Fugitive Lover – gruff baritone sax, fire-and-brimstone gospel imagery repurposed as crime jazz, hook-and-ladder guitar riffage, the works.

Waterhouse goes back to primitive mode for Minor Time – as in “was your major, but you made the change” – and then picks up the pace with the quasi-surf Santa Ana 1986. Turns out Waterhouse is a California Man, just like Roy Wood. The album’s final cut is To Tell, the great missing b-side to ELO’s Showdown. If you like the standard noir tropes, if you miss Twin Peaks, this is your jam. Less devoted fans may find this on the monochromatic side. But maybe that’s the way Waterhouse wants it – and if so, that’s cool.

Wildly Popular New York Cult Artist Releases a Dark New Single

Singer/personality Anna Copa Cabanna had a big hit with a monthly punk cabaret residency at Joe’s Pub that lasted for years. She was a familiar presence at the legendary first incarnation of Freddy’s Bar before it was razed illegally to built that hideous, already-rusting Brooklyn arena. Most recently, she’s become the frontwoman of Big Balls, the hilarious AC/DC cover band.

Her new single is We Don’t Sleep, an expansive departure into lingering noir pop.

Darkly Carnivalesqe, Mary Lou Williams-Inspired Themes From Frank Carlberg and Gabriel Bolaños

This is not to imply in any way that the lockdown has been anything other than Hitlerian evil, but it’s forced everybody to think outside the box. We’re now finding out how far outside the box artists have pushed themselves in the past year. One who’s explored unexpected territory is pianist Frank Carlberg, whose phantasmagorical new electroacoustic album of Mary Lou Williams-inspired microtonal music, Charity and Love, a collaboration with Gabriel Bolaños is streaming at Bandcamp.

Carlberg has always had a carnivalesque side, and is a connoisseur of noir, but this is arguably his creepiest record yet. It seems here that his piano is processed to evoke bell-like microtones. Sometimes the effect is akin to an electric piano, sometimes a toy piano, sometimes a carillon. Either way, the effect is persistently disquieting.

Bumping around under the lid, channeling darkly ambered blues, some of the phantasmagoria he so excels at has echoes of stride and boogie and a little crazed tomcat-on-the-keys noise in the album’s title track. Meanwhile, a loop of voices draws closer and closer to the center, becomes painfully unlistenable and fortunately is not a portent for what’s on the rest of the record.

Mary Lou, Mary Blue is a stunningly uneasy, carillonesqe piece that soon goes up and down the funhouse staircase in odd intervals that will keep you on your toes no matter how agitated or woozily surreal the multitracks become. Zodiac Impressions has an echoey, strange web of flitting, rhythmic gestures and Monklike riffs twisted into microtonal shapes, rumbling diesel motor sonics contrasting with the chimes far overhead, decaying to a creepy, sepulchral outro

A brief, murky interlude introduces Mary’s Aries, one of the starker pieces here, its spare, steadily rhythmic, chiming phrases and cascades imbued with the album’s warpiest tonalities. The duo follow that with Broken Stomp, a delicate, marionettish strut encroached on by loops and cascades. The way Bolaños layers the echoes, one long phrase following another, will give you chills.

Big Sky, Dark Clouds is a haunting Lynchian stroll that Carlberg builds emphatically and lets drift away forlornly at the end. Williams’ quote about “Whenever there’s a strong beat, people always want to degrade the music by calling it jazz,” is priceless in context.

The two follow Hop, Skip, Jump, a lively gremlin of a miniature, with the spacious, lingering chords of Water Under the Bridge, strongly evoking the otherworldly, eerie coda of Messiaen’s Quartet For the End of Time. The two close with Waving Goodbye, Carlberg opening with the album’s most darkly carnivalesque, chromatic melody, then taking a twistedly wistful turn that branches off into bizarre multitracks before the piano brings the poignancy back. In a strange way, this makes a good companion piece to Chris Pattishall‘s reinvention of Williams’ Zodiac Suite.

Another Bleakly Amusing Album of Protest Songs From the Pocket Gods

“I did more business in July than I did in all of 2019,” a Brooklyn liquor store owner confided to a friend of this blog last summer. In a locked-down city where domestic violence is up 50%, suicide among young people is up 60%, with the murder rate soaring, that’s no wonder. It’s been even worse in the UK. The Pocket Gods offer a cynical, distinctly British and very catchy take on lockdown hell in Alcoholics Enormous, one of the funniest songs on their characteristically eclectic new album Another Day I Cross It Off My Bedroom Wall, streaming at Spotify.

Speaking of overdoing it, the pun in that song title is just as endangered. Alcoholics Anonymous became just plain Alcoholics when the lockdowners shut down all the churches and community centers where the meetings were held, and everything went online.

Pocket Gods mastermind Mark Christopher Lee has put out a staggering amount of music over the past decade. The band’s equally desperate, bleakly funny previous record of protest songs, No Room at the (Holiday) Inn, made the ten best albums of 2020 list here, and the gallows humor of this one is just as spot-on.

Lee assesses the lockdowners’ crazymaking over a disquieting, hypnotic pulse in Conspiracy Collagen: what can you believe when the fake news media gets more and more outlandish every day? He takes that same disbelief to a sarcastic sendup of celebrity obsession in JS X RQ. My Next High is just as angst-fueled, and sounds like the Jesus & Mary Chain doing a decent job covering the Byrds.

Essential Wenzels on a Wet Wednesday, a horror movie theme for the past year’s insanity, is the best song on the album (the Wenzels chain is sort of a British cross between Au Bon Pain and 7-11). Narcissistic Jogger has a similarly macabre pulse: all the same, you can’t help but laugh at these double-muzzled sheep gasping for air. And the catchy powerpop nugget Pound Shop Junkie speaks truth to the cognitive dissonance of desperate consumers lined up around the block for formula retail. Today the dollar store, tomorrow the breadline, after the lockdowners bulldoze all the independent farms because a couple of workers were caught within six feet of each other.

For the record, this blog doesn’t really believe that any of those apocalyptic New Abnormal horror scenarios will ever be more than a pipe dream for a handful of oligarchs and their propaganda squads. More than 30% of the US has been liberated and is back to normal as of today. Then again, weren’t we lucky to be sitting here in our (quasi) safe American homes, able to lustily sing, “Don’t wanna go back there again.”

A Haunting Album For Our Time by Iconic Pianist Satoko Fujii

You can tell how serious people are by the extremes they go to. Pianist Satoko Fujii managed to finish her new solo album Hazuki – streaming at Bandcamp – with an icepack on her neck. That may not be as much of a display of superhuman endurance as the two Curt Schillling bloody sock games, but it’s in the same league. Yet, the Boston Red Sox pitcher humbly requested to be taken off the Baseball Hall of Fame ballot. Likewise, Fujii also doesn’t seem to want anything more than the opportunity to sell out a jazz club, as she routinely did before the lockdown. Undeterred, she keeps putting out brilliant albums as a way to stay current and maybe make a few bucks since live music has been criminalized in so many of the parts of the world where she used to play.

The album title is medieval Japanese for “August,” which is when she recorded the record in the unventilated music room in her Tokyo apartment in almost hundred-degree heat last year. How hot is this music? It’s a distinctive, elegantly articulated portrait of the desperation of a career on ice and a world slipping toward a holocaust. As usual, Fujii often goes under the piano lid for all kinds of unorthodox sonics: approximations of an autoharp, a koto or a monsoon crushing the coast, which she intermingles with increasingly portentous, menacing variations on a simple, ominous lefthand riff in the album’s opening track, Invisible.

The second number, Quarantined is part Messaienic, carrilonesque study in making do with what we have and part monstrous apocalyptic tableau: this record is one of Fujii’s most energetic, even explosive albums in recent memory and this is one of its most haunting interludes. She works those close-harmonied chords with even more of a funereal angst in Cluster (possibly a take on the concept of “COVID clusters,” real or imagined). Throughout her work, Fujii typically maintans a distance from the macabre, if only for the sake of suspense, but not here.

Hoffen (German for “hope”) is aptly titled, a matter-of-factly imploring atmosphere infusing this soberly cascading, crescendoing, relentlessly emphatic ballad without words. Fujii builds an even more tightly claustrophobic, raga-like, modal intensity in the next number, Beginning, perhaps ironically one of the album’s catchiest tunes.

She develops Ernesto, a Che Guevara homage, around an artful assemblage of climbing phrases, complete with looming, stygian atmospherics and a seemingly withering parody of generic ballad architecture. Expanding, an older but previously unrecorded tune, begins as a study in leapfrogging modalities but rises toward a hard-hitting, catchy, late 50s Miles Davis-style tableau. Fujii closes the album with Twenty-Four Degrees and its steady, Mompou-esque chimes, a cool settling in after the oppressive conditions under which Fujii made the record. Three months into 2021, and she’s already released two of the strongest contenders for best album of the year: this one, and her Prickly Pear Cactus duo collaboration with vibraphonist Taiko Saito.

Lingering Mystery and Lynchian Sonics From the Royal Arctic Institute

If you have to hang a label on the Royal Arctic Institute, you could call them a cinematic surf band. They have a Lynchian side, a jazzy side and also a space-surf side. Their latest album Sodium Light is streaming at Bandcamp.

The opening number, the vampy Prince of Wisconsin has an easygoing sway, Gramercy Arms keyboardist Carl Bagaly’s bubbly Rhodes piano giving way to bandleader John Leon’s reverby twang and then grit. The distant wistfulness in Christmases At Sea is visceral, the jangly mingle of guitar over David Motamed’s tense bass pulse and Lyle Hysen’s muted drums.

We Begin on Familiar Ground is a real chiller: the big bite at the beginning is just a hint of what’s to come over spare, creepy, mutedly lingering ambience. The trick ending, and the searing guitar solo from And the Wiremen‘s Lynn Wright, are just plain awesome. Is this a lockdown parable? Who knows: the album was recorded clandestinely somewhere in the tri-state area last year.

The fourth track, Different in Sodium Light is a return to balmy Summer Place calm, Wright adding just a tinge of ominousness with his elegant solo. The final cut, Tomorrowmorrowland is the closest thing here to And the Wiremen’s ominous, Morricone-esque southwestern gothic, with a slashing organ break. On a very short list of rock albums released in 2021 so far, this is one of the best.. And it’s available on cassette!

A Look Back at Abigail Lapell’s Searing, Brilliant Getaway Album

Abigail Lapell’s 2019 album Getaway – streaming at Bandcamp – is one of the most brilliantly lyrical, tersely melodic original folk albums of recent years. Her vocals are usually understated, so when she rises to the rafters with righteous wrath, it takes your breath away. Sandy Denny is the obvious influence. Likewise, there’s a smoldering anger here. Abandonment is a persistent theme. This is not music for the faint-hearted but it is an elixir for anyone who’s ever been screwed over. And the tunesmithing, and musicianship, and arrangements, are sharp and purposeful. Time may judge this a classic.

The album’s first track, Gonna Be Leaving begin with Lapell’s warpy, trebly hollowbody blues guitar over Lisa Bozikovic’s stately piano and a vocal line that in classical music would be called a rondo. It sets the stage for the rest of the album: there’s a crushing irony in how the protagonist’s escape foreshadows the antagonist’s subsequent departure.

Ask Me No Questions a brisk waltz with distant echoes of early Fairport Convention. The ending is crushing – it’s too good to spoil. If vindictive is your thing, this is your jam.

Lapell’s circling guitar voicings in Devll in the Deep are nothing short of gorgeous in this otherwise tormentedly crescendoing anthem, Rachael Cardiello’s viola adding bracing bursts of color. Lapell switches to piano for Leningrad, an even more witheringly cynical, wintry ballad: “I come from a better place, but I don’t have far to fall,” she alludes.

With its spare, fingerpicked guitar and fluttering mellotron, Sparrow for a Heart is the closest evocation of Sandy Denny here, Rebecca Hennessey adding somber trumpet. Christine Bougie’s keening lapsteel floats over Lapell’s steady strums in the spirited yet haggard road narrative Halfway to Mexico.

The tricky rhythms and Lapell’s blippy keyboards underscore the surreal milieu of UFO Song: like David Bowie, life on Mars seems to be an improvement…until the narrator here sees the spaceship.

Lapell builds a hypnotic backdrop with her accordion in Runaway, an atmospheric take on oldtime Appalachian folk. Likewise, Down by the Water is a spare, harmony-fueled front-porch folk number.

Lapell’s hammer-on guitar sparkles darkly under the brass section in Little Noise: it wouldn’t be out of place in the Linda Thompson catalog. The album’s final cut is Shape of a Mountain, rocky terrain as metaphor for a defiantly individualist and weatherbeaten heart, set against a starkly resonant full-band backdrop.

A Saturnine Album From One of the Most Distinctive Pianists in the History of Jazz…and Everything Else

Carla Bley hardly needs a shout from this blog; she’s been one of the most instantly recognizable pianists of the past half-century and more. And she’s no less vital now. Her latest trio album Life Goes On – the third in a series – is streaming at Spotify. It comprises three suites: two triptychs and one in four parts. In keeping with Bley’s increasingly finely honed melodicism of recent years, if you’re looking for epic sweep and deviously manic improvisation, you should start with her 1970 magnum opus Escalator Over the Hill.

This album’s title suite begins with a terse, slowly swinging minor-key blues where Bley eventually leaves the terse lows where she’s been hanging out and drops out altogether as saxophonist Andy Sheppard solos hazily but lyrically over bassist Steve Swallow’s similarly low-key prowl. The second part is more saturnine, Swallow tiptoeing over her regal, spacious chords which eventually extend into more wary, bracing territory. The trio pick up the pace in the more cosmopolitanly swinging, subtly carnivalesque, Monkish third section and close with a similar, moodily syncopated stroll, Swallow contributing pointillistic melody overhead, Sheppard floating more lightheartedly.

The first of the triptychs is the gorgeously haunting Beautiful Telephones, beginning with brooding, grimly incisive, modal piano and bass, picking up somewhat as Sheppard shoots for bringing an irrepressible cheer to the persistently troubled sway. They wind it up with a more enigmatic but ultimately macabre stroll anchored by Swallow’s fat low end.

The closing partita, Copycat begins as a rather stern, boleroesque march, Swallow again working incisively in the highs over Bley’s moody chords. It becomes more of a Monk homage as the trio work a series of knowing exchanges, Sheppard’s flute-like leaps contrasting with Swallow’s steady, chugging pulse and the bandleader’s increasingly tropical phrasing. What will this icon come up with next?

A Magical, Mysterious Masterpiece by Satoko Fujii and Taiko Saito

Pianist Satoko Fujii has made more good albums than just about anyone alive. Part of that is because she’s made more albums than just about anyone alive – over ninety as a bandleader or co-leader. There is no one with more infinite gravitas livened by a surprisingly devious sense of humor. Her latest album, Beyond is one of her most rivetingly evocative and marks the debut of yet another new project, Futari, a duo with vibraphonist Taiko Saito streaming at Bandcamp.

These songs are on the long, quiet and extremely spacious side. Fujii typically takes centerstage but not always. Her sound world has expanded considerably, to an otherworldly rapture in the last couple of years. The one here is akin to an eclipse, equal parts dark and celestial. Often it’s hard to tell who’s playing what, enhancing the mystery.

The opening number, Molecular has a subtly tremoloing vibraphone drone punctuated by whispery rustles and eerily microtonal, rhythmically chiming prepared piano, like a mobile in the breeze wafting from the great beyond. In the second track, Proliferation, a murky drone filters in and then gives way to squirrelly noises and surreal hints of a boogie before Saito fires off liltingly Lynchian phrases over Fujii’s gathering storm.

Echoey long-tone vibraphone drifts through the mix in Todokani Tegami as Fujii colors it with a haunting austerity, leading up to an absolutely macabre music-box theme. The album’s title track rises from barely perceptible whispers to spare bell-like piano accents, Saito’s microtones a chill little breeze under the door.

On the Road is not a jazz poetry piece (sorry, couldn’t resist) – it’s a moody, modal tableau with a tight, steady interweave of allusively Arabic tonalities and an ending tacked on that’s way too good to spoil. To steal a title from the John Cale book, the calmer moments of Mizube could be called Fragments of a Rainy Season.

A shockingly straightforward, Lynchian waltz quickly gives way to Messiaenic insistence and eventual fullscale freakout, then back, in Ame No Ato. Saito’s chromatics lingering above Fujii’s steady, phantasmagorical chords in Mobius Loop are a red-neon treat; thunder and an after-the-rain chill ensue.

The two return to ambience punctuated by bell-like accents to close the record on a vast, meditative note with Spectrum. Saito’s strengths as a listener and an elegant orchestrator deserve a bandmate as focused as Fujii, whose extemporaneous tunesmithing gets pushed to new levels here. It’s awfully early in the year to be speculating about the best album of 2021, but there’s nothing that’s been released so far that can touch the sheer magic of this one.