New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Category: pop music

Low-Key, Subtle, Inventive Jazz and Parlor Pop From Singer/Pianist Aimee Nolte

Aimee Nolte is best known for her extremely popular youtube jazz piano instructional videos. To her further credit, one of her most interesting videos is on how to play rock piano, a rare art to be sure. After all, you don’t want to clutter a rock song with fussy harmonies: Nolte shows you how.

As an artist herself, Nolte has a clear, direct, uncluttered voice and a fondness for inventive, counterintuitive arrangements. Her album Looking for the Answers is streaming at Spotify. It’s a mix of low-key originals and jazz standards. Nolte is all about subtlety: there’s nothing here that’s going to blow you away, but there are all sorts of clever touches. As a vocalist, she really excels at ballads; as a pianist, she plays with classically-influenced lyricism and remarkable terseness: this music is on the quiet side, but there’s nothing loungey about it. 

The balmy woodwind arrangement that opens the album’s first song, The Loveliest Girl, matches Nolte’s calm, warmly unadorned delivery. As the aphoristic narrative about a sunbeam finding its raison d’etre gathers steam, Mike Scott’s gently fingerpicked acoustic guitar enters the picture, followed by bassist Bruce Lett and drummer James Yoshizawa.

There’s a hint of the South in Nolte’s voice and a little Brazil in the album’s title track, a syncopated swing shuffle, Scott’s guitar intermingled within the bandleader’s bright, steady piano. Scott’s long solo really nails that same matter-of-fact, lyrically ratcheting drive.

A samba titled Falling Snow might sound bizarre, but it works as a muted backdrop for Nolte’s tender vocals and some nimbly interwoven guitar/piano exchanges. She sings with a bittersweet resonance throughout This One Hurts, a pensive but catchy solo lament.

Then she picks up the pace with the salsa party anthem I Gotta Get, Lett’s bass prowling around deviously. The plush woodwinds return in Save Me One Last Time, the album’s best and most haunting track, a wounded breakup tale told from the point of view of the instigator.

Nolte recalls Ella Firzgerald in her stripped-down bass-and-vocal take of Bye Bye Blackbird with a lot of carefree scatting. Her piano follows a mutedly exploratory tangent in a trio version of All Too Soon over Scott’s steady chords.

So In Love is an understatedly joyous return to samba jazz, followed by You Should’ve, a 70s-style Nashville country-pop ballad recast as grey-sky art-song. Nolte closes the record with For a While, a brief, lyrical solo piano ballad.

Lush, Majestic, Angst-Fueled Orchestral Rock Tunesmithing From Dot Allison

Songwriter Dot Allison opens her new album Heart Shaped Scars – streaming at Bandcamp – with the title track, a Britfolk-tinged tale of abandonment, starry fingerpicked guitar and spare piano over increasingly lush strings, her airy voice reaching for the rafters. It sets the stage for the rest of the record. Allison has a thing for ghosts and metaphorically loaded nature imagery. She likes to record a central vocal track and then layer another one way up in the stratosphere: Lisa Hannigan and Susanne Sundfor‘s more lavish, folk-inspired material comes to mind.

“Listen to what this corridor said,” Allison encourages in The Haunted, a tale of metaphorically loaded ghostly presences over a similar, slightly less symphonically lavish backdrop. Icy raindrop piano flickers above the strummy acoustic guitar of Constellations, a surreal mashup of sweeping chamber pop with tinges of hip-hop, a vibe she reprises with even more imaginative textures later in Cue the Tears..

She reaches for a breathier, more mystical delivery in the circling, mantra-like Can You Hear Nature Sing: “Can you hear through her tears, a myriad of melodies?” Allison asks. The angst hits fever pitch in Ghost Orchid. a stately, anthemic art-rock ballad spiced with some uneasy close harmonies: “We melt into the sun,” is the last line. Allison deserves a lot of credit for resisting the urge to turn this into full-blown High Romantic cliche.

The stark, Appalachian-tinged waltz Forever’s Not Much Time is a subtly venomous broadside that works on many levels: the creepy outro is priceless, and too good to give away. The message of One Love – an original – is not “let’s get together and feel all right,” but the devastating consequences of a garden left to die.

“We’ve got blood on our hands,” is Allison’s opening refrain in Love Died in Our Arms, another stab at orchestral hip-hop. She winds up the album a stark but ultimately optimistic, verdantly string-driven start-over theme, the closest thing to a medieval English ballad here.

An Appetizing New Album From Piroshka

Piroshka is Russian for “little dumpling.” But the sound of this British supergroup of 80s and 90s rock veterans has a lot more flavor than your average pot-sticker. Their new album Love Drips and Gathers is streaming at Spotify. Guitarists Miki Berenyi (founding member of dreampop and 90s Britrock visionaries Lush) and KJ “Moose” McKillop choose their spots to echo and clang as the ambience wafts behind them. It’s an interesting synthesis of everything Lush was, from the foundationally icy dreampop of their early career through the more straightforwardly anthemic sound they ended with.

The two guitars linger and mingle in the opening track, Hastings before bassist Mick Conroy and drummer Justin Welch raise the energy. But the hypnotic spacerock ambience remains the same, at least until Terry Edwards’ flugelhorn signals an undulating crescendo out, pure late 80s Britpop.

The Knife Thrower’s Daughter has a muted, drifting art-rock ambience and one of Berenyi’s classic, allusively menacing narratives over increasingly pulsing atmospherics. From there they segue into Scratching at the Lid, another dark Berenyi lyric and icy chorus-box guitars over a brisk new wave bassline.

Lovable is the missing link between immersively artsy early 90s Lush and a big early influence, Siouxsie & the Banshees, in nocturnal mode five years earlier. With its echoing, puffing string synth and brooding minor-key ambience, VO is also a throwback to that era and one of the strongest songs on the album.

Set to a steady backbeat with layered guitar textures and a big, stabbing keyboard crescendo, Wanderlust could be a recent, poppier song by the Church with a woman out front. The album’s high point is another backbeat tune, Echo Loco, turning an old pop formula on its head: catchy, biting verse, nebulous chorus.

The closest thing to an epic here is Familiar, a rippling spacescape. They close with We Told You, a cinematic, goth-tinged mostly instrumental theme. 

One complaint about this album: Berenyi’s vocals are too low in the mix, and oddly processed in places, a move that backfires more often than not. This blog’s owner saw Lush live more than once back in the 90s and insists that she was as strong a singer onstage, maybe even more so, than she was in the studio, and there’s no reason to think that’s changed.

Piroshka are touring Europe this year, but until the specter of medical “passports” has been put back in its coffin for good, it’s not “safe” to buy tickets to a venue where at the moment you may not be able to enter without taking a lethal injection.

Catchy, Bittersweet 60s Pop-Influenced Sounds and a Couple of Brooklyn Gigs From War Violet

Songwriter Jummy Aremu performs under the name War Violet. She writes catchy, anthemic, assertive songs and sings in a resonant, unpretentious voice. Her music has a strong 60s influence, both on the folk side and the pop side: Burt Bacharach-era Dionne Warwick is a good comparison. Aremu sold out the vinyl edition of her latest ep, Getaway, but it’s still streaming at Bandcamp. She’s at Our Wicked Lady on July 27 at 10 PM for $12. Then she’s at Pete’s on July 31 at 10 for the tip jar.

The first track on the record, Just For the Night is one of the most elegant songs ever written about a one-night stand, the synth orchestration sweeping over Arenmu’s spare guitar. “I’ve been to all of the parties in my day,” Aremu intones soberly in the album’s bossa-tinged second track: they must not have been much fun.

The big, exasperatedly poignant singalong here is the title track: “I don’t need this, I don’t need this,” is the mantra. With just emphatic acoustic guitar, snappy bass and a string synth, it’s simple, direct and will be wafting through your head for hours

The last track is I Hope I See You Again, a mix of sparkle and scruffiness: “Just look to the wall for answers big and small.” War Violet also has a Soundcloud page which probably predates the Bandcamp tracks and as you can imagine, the songs are rougher, but it shows she hit the ground running. Since last year’s lockdown, there’s been more attrition than ever in what you might call the rock scene here: good thing for us that War Violet stuck around.

Cellist Mia Pixley Puts Out a Thoughtful, Playful, Deceptively Deep Album of Soul Songs and Chamber Pop

Before she went solo, Mia Pixley was the cellist in the Debutante Hour, an all-female trio who charmed and needled New York audiences with their quirky, deceptively biting chamber pop throughout the late zeros and early teens. Since then, the individual members have done plenty of work on their own – Maria Sonevytsky in the worlds of Balkan and Ukrainian music, and Susan Hwang with the noir-tinged , cinematic Lusterlit and the erratically brilliant lit-pop collective the Bushwick Book Club.

On her new album Margaret in the Wild – streaming at Bandcamp – Pixley glides elegantly through undulating soul grooves and the occasional minimalist classical theme or chamber pop interlude. She plays bass and guitar voicings on the cello along with classical and blues phrasing, and her vocals have more depth and expressiveness than ever. Her supporting cast is first-rate: Ruth Davies and Kevin Goldberg sharing bass duties, Javier Santiago and Bryan Simmons each on piano, Luis Salcedo on guitar, Nahuel Bronzini contributing slide guitar and Wurlitzer, Barbara Higbie on mandolin, Aaron Kruziki on organ, Michaelle Goerlitz and Amelie Hinman on percussion, Isaac Schwartz on drums and Maryam Qudus on keyboards. This is one of those rare albums that sounds like nothing else that’s been released this year. Whatever you call this music – soul, cello rock, something that hasn’t been categorized yet – Pixley owns it.

She opens the record with Core, a terse but lushly orchestrated, nocturnally sweeping overture, the cello balanced by gentle, twinkly piano. In the Daylight, a lustrous, summery tableau, has Pixley’s lithe cello multitracks rising over a vamping lullaby. She follows with Good Taste, a slinky, catchy, soul and hip-hop-infused individualist’s anthem: “Don’t their education, don’t need their ok,” Pixley asserts. If songs like this got played on commercial radio, this would be the monster hit.

Mama’s Got Snacks is funkier, with a New Orleans groove and an amusingly aphoristic, defiantly feminist lyric. In Voices – a setting of a Christopher Shaw poem – Pixley reaches from hazy chamber pop to an assertively bouncy cello-rock theme.

The album’s centerpiece is Everything Is Slow Motion, which begins as a moody, mystical, gorgeously drifting tone poem awash in layers of cello and rippling piano before Pixley hits a trip-hop groove. It reminds of Nina Simone at her most avant-garde.

Pixley orchestrates a carefree, Malian-tinged tune in African Prayer – and is that a balafon, or just Pixley’s cello running through a pitch pedal? In Between Sound comes across as a sunny reverse image of Everything Is Slow Motion, with distant hints of Indian music and Bob Marley. She wraps up the album with Watering, an attractively rippling folk-pop tune with piano and guitar, the closest thing to the Debutante Hour here. There’s a lot of depth on this record: if we get to the point where there’s still enough of a reason to pull together a best-of-2021list, this should be on it.

A Brilliant, Spot-On 60s-Style Psychedelic Debut From Langan Frost & Wane

Langan Frost & Wane are a fantastic psychedelic folk-pop band. Their debut album – which isn’t online yet – straddles the line between period-perfect homage to their influences from the 60s, and parody of psychedelic excess. Brian Langan, RJ Gilligan (a.k.a. Frost) and Nam Wayne‘s songcraft and musicianship is very precise and very British, distantly sinister Elizabethan folk surrealism spiced with a hit of good blotter. The blend of acoustic and electric textures is elegant; most of these songs are over in well under four minutes, sometimes much less. Yet this isn’t sunshine pop: there’s a persistent disquieted edge here. Acid is scary stuff, after all.

The opening track, Perhaps the Sorcerer sets the stage: it’s Jethro Tull meets the Peanut Butter Conspiracy out behind the Moody Blues’ tour van in a shady Laurel Canyon back alley around 1970. With its gorgeously uneasy close-harmonied vocals, mellotron and faux-Balkan guitars, it’s done in less than 2:30.

The Dandelion has somberly arpeggiated folk guitar behind all sorts of goofy mid-60s effects including a jawharp, akin to an acoustic Dukes of Stratosphear. Falcon Ridge is a medieval Scottish-tinged waltz – the singer assures his girl that he will be there with “wagons of wine in tow.”

Babe and the Devil, a murder mystery tale, is a delta blues as the Stones would have done it on Beggars Banquet, complete with djembe instead of Charlie Watts’ drums. The band channel the Pretty Things at their trippy mid-60s peak in King Laughter, guitar sitar oscillating and clanging behind the song’s troubled narrative: where do good times go when they’re over?

Delicate hammer-on folk guitar mingles with glockenspiel in Everyday Phoenix. Frozen Shell comes across as a tripped-out take on gloomy Celtic balladry. On the surface, Learn the Names of the Plants sounds like Peter Paul & Mary, but there’s guile here: “Know the nightshade from the blueberry and live to see tomorrow!”

Gentle penumbral oscillations from the guitars enhance the unease in the stark, minor-key Libra Moon. Is Alchemist of Hazy Row about a sad drug dealer or a bereaved father? Maybe neither – the soaring violin solo is a tantalizingly plaintive touch, and the ending is way too good to give away. It might be the best song on the album.

The trio go back to SF Sorrow-era Pretty Things for The Weaver and the Traveler, with hobbits on the keys to liven the somber mood. Then they shift from a pounding, echoey dulcimer theme to Moody Blues sweep and Syd Barrett playfulness in Orange Magic

Set to an aptly feathery web of acoustic guitars, Everywing is a brooding medieval existentialist love story. She Walks Alone could be a sequel, and is the only remotely Beatlesque track here. The album closes with the pensive, enigmatic, violin-fueled Diomyria. Admittedly, 2021 has been the slowest year for rock records since rock records first existed. But even in a busy year, this would be one of the best.

A Colorfully Optimistic, Tropically-Tinged New Album From Trumpeter-Singer Sarah Wilson

Sarah Wilson’s individualism crosses many genres. She’s a trumpeter who also sings in a low-key, uncluttered mezzo-soprano, writes lyrical songs that bridge the worlds of jazz, chamber pop and theatre music, and takes inspiration from sounds of the tropics. Her new album Kaleidoscope is streaming at Bandcamp.

The opening track, Aspiration – how’s THAT for a loaded word in 2021! – is a benediction with gentle flutters from the rest of the band behind Wilson’s calm, comforting riffs. Violinist Charles Burnham and guitarist John Schott echo the bandleader before she brings the song full circle.

Drummer Matt Wilson’s nimble traps and bassist Jerome Harris’ tersely leaping riffs anchor the second tune, Presence, a lithely cheery soca number with a bright Burnham solo at the center. Wilson moves to the mic over Myra Melford’s low-key gospel piano in Young Woman, a shout-out to the pianist, a mentor and friend who seems to have lifted her out of a very dark place at a key moment.

The band return to a jauntily syncopated calypso-tinged beat in Color, lit up by a carefree, triumphant Schott solo, Melford bringing the lights down a little with her own glimmering judiciousness afterward.

The album’s subtly bossa-inflected title track opens with some gorgeous bell-like piano/guitar harmonies, Wilson adding a reflective, muted solo, Schott working his way out of a thorny thicket to jubilation.

Felta Road, a warmly front-porch folk-tinged number has Melford’s incisive, calypso ripples contrasting with Wilson and Burnham’s spaciously energetic lines overhead. Likewise, Quiet Rust has a bucolic swing, a bittersweet, potently imagistic look at picking up the pieces and moving on. It’s the best song on the album.

The best of the instrumentals is Night Still, Melford and Harris setting an eerily modal scene livened somewhat by Wilson’s enigmatically catchy trumpet, Burnham drifting uneasily through the glimmer.

The rhythm section scramble and cluster behind Wilson’s sonorous trumpet as The Hit slowly coalesces, then pulses along on Harris’ catchy upper-register riffage, Melford adding contrasting intensity with her bluesy modalities, matched by Burnham in turn.

Hearing this band play more-or-less straight-up country music on Wilson’s cover of M. Ward’s Lullaby+Exile is a trip: who knew Melford had Nashville slip-key piano up her sleeve? The band slow down again for With Grace, Wilson’s wafting lines giving way to a spiky Harris solo ushering in a lively carnaval scene. The party continues on the album’s last track, Go, a dramatic, lickety-split mashup of soca, circus rock, salsa and a bit of a chase scene.

Fun fact: Wilson was once head of puppet programming at Lincoln Center Out of Doors – which involved the kind of puppets worn on hands to entertain crowds, not the kind that walk around spouting World Economic Forum fear propaganda to keep those crowds from being entertained.

Aviva Chernick Mashes Up Haunting Old Ladino Songs With Americana

Aviva Chernick has an expressive, honeyed voice and leads an eclectic, sometimes psychedelically tinged band who reinvent old songs from across the Sephardic diaspora. Her album La Sirena, which also contains several of Chernick’s originals, is streaming at Bandcamp. If you think old Jewish songs and American country music have nothing in common, you haven’t heard this strangely beguiling record.

It begins with A Ti Espanya, a fond, gentle waltz.  Chernick sings Min Hametzar in Ladino and English, a brooding, metrically tricky psychedelic folk tune with Joel Schwartz’s moody washes of steel guitar over Justin Gray and Derek Gray’s rock rhythm section: “They call to you from an aeroplane,” is the refrain.

With Schwartz’s bluegrass-tinged leads Kol Dodi is the strangest old brooding medieval nigun you’ll ever hear, Likewise, the album’s title track, a muted bolero, has a simmering roadhouse blues undercurrent. And Arvoles Yorvan could be Dolly Parton…in Ladino, with National steel guitar and dobro swooping in the background.

The sad waltz Este Montanya de Enfrente has a delicate web of acoustic and Portuguese guitars. Notwithstanding her big crescendo on that one, Chernick’s alternately misty and acerbic delivery on a muted take of the traditional Adon Olam could be the album’s high point: the melody makes a good Balkan-tinged bounce. Chernick closes the record with the a-cappella miniature Rikondus de Mi Nona. The album also includes a couple of blithe tunes by Bosnian singer Flory Jagoda.

An Enticing Brooklyn Gig by the Irrepressibly Amusing Sterling Strings

One of the most auspiciously entertaining shows of the summer so far happens this July 20 at noon at Metrotech Park in downtown Brooklyn, where the Sterling Strings are playing their tongue-in-cheek string quartet arrangements of rap and pop hits. It would be a mistake to hear them tackling a Kanye West tune and dismiss them as a comedy band. On one hand, their shtick can be ridiculously funny. On the other, they’re serious musicians with formidable chops. Beyond that, their instrumental versions often elevate some awfully cheesy material to unexpected places, when the group aren’t punking out Broadway themes or suddenly getting serious with an unexpectedly plaintive, low-key version of an Astor Piazzolla tango.

They don’t have an album out, but they’re all over the web and their videos page reveals an immense amount of method behind the madness. They turn DH Khaled’s Wild Thoughts into a vampy, kind of creepy tune. Cellist Eric Cooper bows his bassline, cello-metal style, instead of plucking it out, and the rest of the group – violinists Frederique Gnaman and Edward W. Hardy, and violist Patrick Page – choose their spots to sliiiiiiiiide around.

They sneak a couple of devious classical quotes into Despacito; their murky version of Eleanor Rigby is pure chamber metal, raising the song’s menace by a factor of ten. Work, the Rihanna hit, is a lot more spare and stark than you would expect – maybe even poignant. Who would have thought.

Same with the Cristina Perri weeper A Thousand Years, which the group reinvent as a faux-baroque canon. Speaking of canons, they also turn in a very expressive take of the famous Pachelbel tune, underscoring the group’s classical cred. If you’re in the area on lunch break or otherwise, this show could be an awful lot of fun. Take the F to Jay St., exit at the front of the Manhattan-bound side.

Shiraz Lane: Metal Grit, Fearlessly Populist Wrath

While there are hardly any genuine artists who are extreme right-wingers, a few styles of music have always had an authoritarian streak. Hardcore punk is one; heavy metal is another. But Finnish band Shiraz Lane are different. When’s the last time you heard a metal band taking a stand for racial equality, or screaming truth to power about economic injustice – without being annoyingly p.c. about it? Their album For Crying Out Loud, a mix of crunchy three-and-four-minute 70s heavy rock songs, is streaming at youtube. Is this a sign of things to come, a paradigm shift? Let’s hope so.

“Fight the power!” frontwoman Hannes Kett wails as the guitars of lead player Jani Lane and rhythm player Miki Kalske come together out of a shrieking intro in the album’s first big punkish anthem, Wake Up. “We’re blinded by black and we’re blinded by white…wake up!”

An evil pickslide kicks off Momma’s Boy, a funny, strutting 70s style riff-rock kiss-off tune: “Go home, momma’s boy!” is the chorus. Here and there, a hip-hop influence rises to the surface: the early part of the catchy, slow-burning House of Cards reflects that. Kett’s unearthly wail gets unleashed pretty much everywhere as well.

Begging for Mercy is the really heavy hit Pat Benatar only wishes she could have written. The album’s title track and Same Old Blues are a pop ballads in disguise. The snide riffage of Mental Slavery is less cock-rock strut than sarcastic cautionary tale: “Still you keep on laughing when the joke’s on you,” Kett sneers at people who just don’t get it.

Behind the 8-Ball rises and falls in waves of heavy blues, with some of the album’s most focused, dynamic guitar work: “You’ll die behind the 8-ball!” is the warning. Bleeding is slow and sarcastic:the chorus is “Shoot me down, can’t you see that I’m bleeding.” The band wind down the album with M.L.N.W. (i.e. make love not war), an unexpectedly successful attempt to really rock out over an rapidfire, echoey U2 repeater-pedal riff.

Some peoople will hear this record and laugh that this is Aerosmith with decent lyrics and vocals that don’t suck, and sometimes that’s true. But Shiraz Lane bring a message of resistance to an audience that punk and hip-hop might not reach. There’s strength in numbers, and all those numbers count.