New York Music Daily

Music for Transcending Dark Times

Category: noir music

A Rare Two-Piano Concert By the Lyrical Claire Ritter and the Hauntingly Acerbic Ran Blake

It’s going to be awhile before live music around the world is up and running again at pre-coronavirus levels, but there are innumerable great live albums we can enjoy in the meantime. One of the best of the past year or so is Ran Blake and Claire Ritter‘s Eclipse Orange, streaming at Spotify. Jazz musicians realized the innumerable benefits of making concert recordings just about as soon as the long-play vinyl record came into existence: Blake,  icon of noir jazz piano, has made more than one, while this is the first-ever twin-piano recording by Ritter, one of his protegees. They’re joined by saxophonist Kent O’Doherty for a college gig recorded in the fall of 2017 in North Carolina. It’s a long album, bigger on playful conversationality than the often chilling, highly improvisational tableaux Blake is unsurpassed at.

The show was a Thelonious Monk centenary celebration, and the group reinvent several of his tunes. But it’s the originals, and the improvisations, that are the real draw here. The simply titled Claire Ritter Story is the album’s opening number: there are places where this opaque, rather mysterious tune, with its mighty block chords, hints at going off the rails, but it never does. That will happen later from time to time. Beyond that, the playing is seamless and intuitive, Ritter usually in the good-cop role.

The duo’s devious repartee and rhythmic jousting throughout a thoroughly iced version of Blue Monk (that’s Blake in the right channel) energizes the crowd. Ritter’s title track, a lyrical solar eclipse narrative, doesn’t go thirty seconds without Blake bringing the glittering gremlins in. Backbone is a stride tune played through a funhouse mirror, while his well-known Short Life of Barbara Monk (a somber dedication to Monk’s late daughter) has a gorgeous focus that Ritter doesn’t wait to push into the macabre, only to pull it back.

O’Doherty joins in as the trio return to Monk for a jaunty but aptly phantasmagorical take of I Mean You, lightening later in Ritter’s High Top Sneakers. Blake shadows Ritter persistently in her lingering, Debussy-esque ballad In Between. Blue Grits has a sly, Monkish stroll, while Emerald and the Breeze has a gorgeously verdant closing-credits atmosphere.

Ghosts perambulate for flickering seconds and then stick around in the muted, stygian chords of Blake’s solo version of Summertime, echoed in his Improvisation of Selma, inspired by a Barbara Pennington painting. O’Doherty floats calmly over the gleaming neoromanticism of Ritter’s Karma Waltz, in contrast with the simmering agitation inherent in Waltzing the Splendor. Breakthru becomes a sort-of-wry game of knuckles, then the mood lightens with the Monkish ragtime of Cool Digs.

Blake goes under the hood for the summery soul ballad in Hubert Powell’s There’s Been a Change, then he makes it more of a song for all seasons. And he most likely isn’t the first guy you’d expect to be mining Brazilian repertoire, but he does that reflectively and reflexively here with famous Jobim and lesser known Ary Barroso themes. And if you ever wondered what Somewhere Over the Rainbow would sound like if Ran Blake – and Claire Ritter – did it, the answer is here. The Monkish take of Ritter’s Integrity ends the night on a deviously entertaining note

Understatedly Troubling Music For Troubling Times From the Nine Seas

Folk noir superduo the Nine Seas take their name from the long-defunct, legendary Alphabet City bar 9C, located at the corner of 9th Street and Avenue C. Years before Pete’s Candy Store was anything more than a numbers joint, and more than a decade before the Jalopy opened, 9C was New York’s ground zero for Americana music. That’s where Liz Tormes and Fiona McBain cut their teeth at the wildly crowded, weekly bluegrass jam.

In the years since then, both would become important voices in Americana, as solo artists and with other bands (McBain best known for her longtime membership in the gospel and soul-tinged Ollabelle). This project, which began as a murder ballad cover act, also goes back several years, attesting to the chemistry between the two musicians. Their long-awaited debut album Dream of Me is streaming at their music page. It’s a mix of originals and imaginative covers, the two singer-guitarists occasionally abettted by keys and horns.

Tormes’ first number, Am I Still Your Demon is the album’s quietly potent opener. It has a classic Tormes vocal trick that she’s used before (see the devastating Read My Mnd, the opening number on her 2010 Limelight album). J. Walter Hawkes’ looming trombone arrangement perfectly matches the song’s understated angst.

The duo reinvent the old suicide ballad I Never Will Marry with a hazy dreampop tinge, as Mazzy Star might have done it. They do E.C. Ball’s fire-and-brimstone country gospel classic Trials, Troubles, Tribulations much the same way. Here and throughout the record, Jim White’s spare banjo, organ and other instruments really flesh out these otherwise stark songs.

Likewise, his glockenspiel twinkles eerily in Go to Sleep, an elegaic Tormes tune. McBain’s I Really Want You is just as calmly phantasmagorical: it’s more about longing than lust. Then Oliver de la Celle ‘s Lynchian guitar and White’s banjo raise the menace in a radical reinvention of Charlie Rich’s Midnight Blues

The hypnotic version of the murder ballad Down in the Willow Garden, a concert favorite, is all the more creepy for the duo’s bright harmonies and steady stoicism, White adding airy pump organ. McBain switches to piano for the even more atmospheric, Julee Cruise-ish Where He Rests.

They wind up the album with a pair of covers. They transform Midnight, a bluesy, Jimmy Reed-style 1952 hit for Red Foley, into minimalist girl-down-the-well pop. And they remake Don Gibson’s Sea of Heartbreak as jungly exotica: nobody plays with more implied menace than the Nine Seas.

The album also includes stripped-down alternate takes of Trials, Troubles, Tribulations and Midnight Blues. Beyond this album, since they’re unable to play shows at the moment, the Nine Seas have a weekly webcast, the Quarantine Chronicles, where they run through many other songs from the immense dark folk repetoire they’ve amassed over the years.

Three New Singles For Tough Times

Every Friday night at 8, Charming Disaster’s web series airs at their youtube channel. Kotorino‘s Jeff Morris and Sweet Soubrette‘s Ellia Bisker started the project as a murder ballad duo and branched out to include both Kotorino’s latin noir and Sweet Soubrette’s dark folk and soul, among an increasing number of styles. Their latest single, I Am a Librarian is an elegantly waltzing throwback to their creepy early days. Are you awaiting the moment you make your escape? Charming Disaster feel your pain.

Smoota – the boudoir soul crooner alter ago of trombonist Dave Smith – also has a new single, Catch It! (The Coronavirus Boogie). It’s a great oldschool funk tune, but if you’re 65 or older, or immunocompromised, you, um, might want to think twice about this particular path to herd immunity.

Once and future HUMANWINE frontwoman Holly Brewer continues to release singles at a breakneck pace. The latest one is Good Ole Fashioned Protest Song, up at Bandcamp as a name-your-price download. Brewer has been a big-picture person for a long time: follow the money and you’ll find the perp, whether you’re talking about petty crime, or the nonsense coming out of the Oval Office.

A Menacing Heavy Psychedelic Gem From High Priestess

Los Angeles heavy psychedelic power trio High Priestess‘ latest release, Casting the Circle – streaming at Bandcamp – is one of the most understatedly haunting, trippy albums of the year so far. Throughout their slowly unwinding dirges, they use more imaginative sonics than your average doom metal band, from the varied guitar textures to their signature, otherworldly vocal harmonies.

They open it with the gorgeously Middle Eastern-tinged title track. Drummer Megan Mullins holds down a muted, steady suspense beneath guitarist Katie Gilchrest’s clanging, ringing acoustic/electric multitracks. Then Gilchrest hits her distortion pedal, joining voices with bassist/frontwoman Mariana Fiel, hitting a deliciously creepy wah guitar interlude.

The trio nick a riff from the macabre classical canon to open the dirgey, practically ten-minute second track, Erebus. Gilchrest’s many layers here, from crunch to clang to troubled, cautious blues and some noisy string-torturing, are just as lurid as the vocals: something about “blood on the sheets.”

Stately piano lingers behind the web of guitars in The Hourglass: imagine 70s psychedelic rockers Nektar at their slowest, with a pair of women out front. Invocation, one of this year’s longest and mesmerzing epics, is over seventeen minutes of rattling, Indian-tinged chromatics, washes of Black Angels distortion, gritty wah and an unexpected, Patti Smith style spoken-word interlude: New York’s great Desert Flower come to mind. As she does throughout the record, Mullins distinguishes herself as one of the most interesting, coloristic drummers in heavy music.

They close with the enigmatic chorale Ave Satanas, a typical move for this darkly individualistic group. You’ll see this on the best albums of 2020 page at the end of the year if there’s still reason for a music blog to exist at that point.

Rome Connects Brooding European Gothic and Irish Dark Folk Traditions

Rome‘s limited-edition vinyl album The Dublin Session may be in the hands of collectors now, but you can still hear this German-Irish project’s surprisingly lush blend of art-rock and stark folk noir at Spotify.

It’s all about gloomy ambience. In the brief, Gaelic-language introduction, the first two things you hear are bandleader Jerome Reuter’s stark, minor-key guitar fingerpicking and gusts of gale-force wind. Then the whole band, including the bouzouki and banjo, kick in on the pouncingly brooding Celtic battle anthem Antenora.

The gloom lifts temporarily when gothic crooner Thåström sings the slow, lush ballad Evropa Irredenta – but not in Latin. “Are you sleeping through the same nightmare?” he wants to know. Holy Ennui may have a jubilant backbeat, but the trouble isn’t over: “You miss the war, don’t you, brother?” Reuter asks.

The b-side begins with Slash ‘n‘ Burn, a slow, muted revolutionary anthem:

Lack of hope and misinformation
Do you really think that’s all it takes
To explain away all this agitation
…did you really think we’d stay quiet through it all?

With its slashing minor-chord variations, Vaterland is the album’s mighty, apocalyptic centerpiece “Are we to choose between wolves and swine?” Reuter poses. “We’re finished here,” a whispering choir responds. After that, the grimly romping banjo tune Mann für Mann is a logical next step

Surprisingly, the album ends on an upbeat note with the towering 6/8 sweep of Rakes and Rovers and then Matt’s Mazurka, which sounds a lot more Irish than Polish. Maybe we’re not staring straight into the abyss after all.

A Rare Chance to Score This Era’s Most Formidable Rock Songwriter’s Obscure Debut Album

Hannah vs. the Many frontwoman Hannah Fairchild released her debut album Paper Kingdoms under her own name in 2010. She and the first incarnation of the band played the release show at the tiny, long-defunct Park Slope boite Bar 4. That’s how the great ones get started.

The album pretty much sank without a trace. But just for today, May 1 it’s up at Bandcamp as a name-your-price download. On one hand, you could say that this is strictly for the diehards. On the other, it’s a fascinating blast from the past from a songwriter who would grow into one of the most witheringly lyrical, ferociously powerful rock tunesmiths ever.

At her blog (also recently resurrected), she looks back on the strategy and logistics (or lack thereof) for making a bedroom pop record on a secondhand laptop, playing all the instruments….with a broken ankle, no less. While a lot of these songs lack the focus and savagery of her breakout album, All Our Heroes Drank Here, and her valkyrie wail doesn’t cut loose to the extent that she’s let it in the years since, there are moments of vocal brilliance and embryonic craft that will take your breath away.

Fairchild would eventually reprise five of these songs for her ferocious 2013 short album Ghost Stories. Hearing the subdued take of All Eyes on Me – Fairchild’s Don’t Fear the Reaper – is a revelation. So is Poor Leander, with its slashingly detailed story of a poor schlub in way, way too deep for his own good; it cuts through just as ominously if a lot more quietly here. And who would have known how much new resonance the line about how “I’ve got my mask on and I’m slipping out the side door” – in the defiant individualist’s anthem Lady of the Court – would take on over the past few weeks? Grab this piece of history while it lasts.

A Chilling Real Estate Bubble Parable Orchestrated by Clint Mansell

Today’s album is composer Clint Mansell‘s orchestral soundtrack to the Ben Wheatley film High-Rise, streaming at Spotify and based on the JG Ballard novel. Ballard was unsurpassed at bleak, dystopic tableaux, and Mansell has found a kindred soul in his work. Much of the music here is very close to the almost gleefully grim cynicism of another gentrification-era parable, Darcy James Argue‘s iconic Brooklyn Babylon. This is Mansell working at full steam, shifting between action and suspense constantly: you never know know where the music’s going to end up here.

The opening cut, cruelly titled Critical Mass, is a brisk, blustery, insistently optimistic string theme – maybe too optimistic for its own good, especially when creepy keys stop everything cold in its tracks. The highrise itself takes shape with brooding, steady overcast strings, Asian-tinged pizzicato, coldly sterile vibraphone and flute. Remember, Ballard was witness to the first cinderblock British council estates from the 1950s, and Mansell really nails that ambience.

Likewise, the longing in the oboe melody looking out from the grim concrete. Ballard’s uncannnily prophetic “vertical city” is portrayed with a strikingly accurate, moodily drab ambience. A circle of women get nothing more than a chilly, circular gamelanesque interlude.

With its sarcastically blithe whistle tune and circling harp, the score’s fifth track, Built Not for Man But For Man’s Absence is a chilling real-life portrait of any random New York corner, its desolately legoland “luxury condos” merely a sad sinkhole for a speculative bubble that may have already burst with the coronavirus crisis.

There’s Danger in the Streets of the Sky, as Mansell describes his sharply shifting scenario, is awash in a blasts of orchestration punctuated by quietly tense melody slipping out from random fragments of the sonic picture. As you can guess, nosiness leads to surveillance, portrayed here by more of that obnoxious whistling over increasingly ominous orchestration.

Mansell revisits the brazenly entitled earlier theme with bombastic drums and nebulous ambience, The Evening’s Entertainment turns out to be a macabre waltz, raised to a funereal power in the closing theme, Blood Garden. He’s has done a lot of great film work over the years: as luridly spot-on as his 2013 Stoker soundtrack was, this is Mansell’s best score to date. It’ll be tough to find subject matter as rich the next time around, although he’s shown an uncanny sense for projects that maximize his talents. Maybe someone can write a sequel. You could call it Crackhouse, and set it in a collapsing speculator property somewhere in a post-coronavirus Bushwick, abandoned to all but the the most desperate and most addicted. And then get this guy to come up with a soundtrack.

Or maybe that scenario plays out best in a near future Manhattan. Panic in Needle Condo?

Going to the Well For an Overlooked Phantasmagorical Treat by Brodka

Polish singer Monika Brodka‘s album Clashes came out in 2016; if she ever played New York, that evidence never made it this far. Since then, the record’s been sitting on the hard drive here, but leaving it there was a mistake. If you like catchy, dark, carnivalesque sounds or 80s goth bands, you should hear it. It’s streaming at Bandcamp.

Creepily twinkling music-box electric piano underscores the airy violin and wounded vocals of the title track: imagine Lorde if/when she ever grows up. The band shift between a cantering syncopation to a straight-up gothic rock pulse in Horses. By now, it’s obvious they’ve got a great bass player; nice creepy, quiet outro too.

Santa Muerte is a surreal, galloping southwesern gothic bounce…with funeral organ. Can’t Wait For War is not a Trumpie march but a pulsing blend of Siouxsie and Romany-flavored sounds. With its blippy minor-key synth and processed vocals, Holy Holes has a moody 80s New York vibe.

A mbira (or a close digital approximation) pings through the steady, hypnotic Haiti: something in the song relates to “cherry flavor.” Funeral is a strange mashup of noir swing and macabre art-rock, afloat in menacingly waltzing keyboard textures. Up in the Hill is the weirdest track here: it’s a generic pop song with an unexpectedly serpentine guitar solo buried in the mix. Could it be that another band’s tune got sequenced into the files that were sent here?

The bass-heavy new wave track afterward is pretty forgettable as well. They bring back the macabre, funeral-organ ambience with the instrumental Kyrie and keep it going through Hamlet, an elegantly muted, disconsolate processional. The final cut is Dreamstreamextreme, an airy, slowly swaying tableau. Throughout the album, you can hear an artist who’s found an original sound and is still experimenting with other ideas: may that experimentation continue and find a wider audience.

Vivid, Epic Symphonic Desolation

In a time of chilling isolation for so many people, the centerpiece of today’s album is the Sinfonia Antarctica, British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams’ seventh and most haunting symphony, just released by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Andrew Manze and streaming at Spotify.

This 1953 epic is an exploration of vastness and all-pervasive cold. Some might call much of this classical heavy metal. It’s rarely performed, partly because it requires such lavish instrumentation. There’s an organ that leaps in to shock you for a few bars. The score also calls for a choir, plus wordless vocals from a soprano (Rowan Pierce, in this case), a wind machine and a small warehouse worth of percussion. In that sense, it’s sort of the Nutcracker for adults. No matter how you feel about Vaughan Williams’ music, you can’t fault him for thinking outside the box.

Thematically, the piece traces the grim trail of Robert Falcon Scott’s doomed 1912 Antarctic expedition. For a composer, this subject matter is problematic in that there comes a point where desolation becomes interminable (Sarah Kirkland Snyder grappled with that same issue in Penelope, her exploration of the Odyssey from the home front). This is a long piece of music – and the orchestra weather the storm, titanically.

In his weatherbeaten voice, marrator Timothy West introduces each of the symphony’s five movements, the first with a quote from Percy Shelley – totally Iron Maiden, right? The mighty, somber opening theme telegraphs where this beast is going. Icy tubular bells, gothic soprano vocalese and echoes of the creepiest section of Saint-Saens’ Carnival of the Animals appear quickly. Agitated swirls from the strings – “We’ve got to call this off!” – are answered by cruel insistence from the brass, underscored by the stomp of the bass drums. A monochromatic landscape has seldom been so colorful.

The second movement has resolute brass against a spinning string section, a gleefully sinister dance from the xylophone and closes with a a pensive first encounter with the endlessness of the glacial terrain. Everything slows down in the third movement, with a pervasive ominousness, up to a rumbling gloom and Graham Eccles’ big organ break: this orchestra’s low strings are fantastic here.

The wistful fourth movement pictures the men of the expedition missing their sweeties at home, but a lightly trudging hope against hope from strings and high winds pushes that out of the picture. As the symphony sways toward its untimely end, a determined brightness persists against all kinds of low-register foreshadowing, but that heroism proves unsustainable and fades down to the washes of a ghostly angel choir.

The record also includes an equally vivid recording of the composers’s ninth and final symphony, notable for what was in 1958 the innovation of three saxophones amid the winds. It has a similarly macabre Tess of the D’Urbervilles subtext.

There’s looming trouble, anxiously silken clarity from the saxes, Tschaikovskian drama and moody Dvorakian landscape in the first movement. That drama continues with a lonely solo flugelhorn intro and rises from a martial menace to a gloomy sweep in the second: there seems to be a sudden moment where poor Tess meets her fate.

Movement three gets a suspiciously satirical strut to its militaristic pulses and stomps: a listener gets the feeling that the composer was not a fan of violence. The orchestra grow calmer and more lustrous as the conclusion begins, but once again trouble is on the horizon, drawing closer and closer. Daytime struggle alternates with brief, nocturnal respite: nighttime eventually wins. A momumental achievement for this inspired orchestra.

Revisiting a Nocturnal Rock Gem From Halycine

Halycine’s ep In the Salt – streaming at Bandcamp – made the shortlist of best releases of the year here in 2016. File this under acts who should be vastly better known. Frontwoman Chloe Raynes has a velvety, accusatory delivery that brings to mind Randi Russo; so does her darkly guitar-fueled songwriting. That comparison holds up strongest in the chugging midtemp anthem Circles, which opens the record.

The bitterly loping second track, Elixir has echoes of early 80s Siouxsie and delicious layers of guitar, from gritty to icy. One More Try is the most majestically angst-fueled anthem here, a 6/8 noir ballad disguised as dark 80s rock, awash in Raynes’ quasar guitar pulses.

She saves her most powerful vocal attack for Woman, You Better Run and its tantalizingly long series of chord changes: “I do not think it’s safe” is the mantra. The final cut, Silver Moon brings to mind the Jesus & Mary Chain circa Darklands: “It’s been a long road for you,” she intones enigmatically, “I wish you well.”