New York Music Daily

Music for Transcending Dark Times

Category: review

Revisiting Exploded View’s Troubled, Coldly Loopy Postrock and No Wave

Exploded View play a troubled, loopy take on late 70s/early 80s postrock and no wave. Some of their songs bring to mind Can, other times the Ex, or even Joy Division at their most minimal. Frontwoman Anika doesn’t sing so much as she speaks, in icily accented English. Their debut album – streaming at Bandcamp – came out in the summer of 2016, arrived on the hard drive here…and went straight down the rabbit hole. While the bass, drums, guitars and keys (uncredited at the Bandcamp page; the band no longer have a webpage of their own) all seem to be completely organic, they loop their simple, catchy, ominously reverb-drenched riffs into a tersely twisted kaleidoscope. There’s a bleak, overcast, grey-concrete European quality to this music.

The opening track, Lost Illusion, sets the tone, a quasar pulse of reverb guitar repeating over and over to a mechanically spiraling beat, like an amplified laundromat washer with a loose axle on spin cycle.

One Too Many has a simple, elegant interweave of chilly, minimal guitar and keyboard riffs around a circling, hypnotic lo-fi bass hook. “You were outside my door at five AM again, broken nose and bloodied up,” Anika intones soberly.

Orlando has absurdly catchy minor-key disco bass and drums beneath coldly oscillating dreampop guitar sheen. Call on the Gods is one of the album’s more broodingly psychedelic tracks, noisy guitar incisions and tumbling drums over a thumping loop. With shards of guitar over an overdriven bass lick, Disco Glove could be a demo for Public Image Ltd.’s Metal Box album

Stand Your Ground is a bedroom-dub shot at a 70s soul groove. The band go back to a PiL-ish fodderstompf with No More Parties in the Attic, then build surrealistically ringing windchime ambience in Lark Descending, which seems to be a war parable.

Gimme Something grows into an acidic thicket of no wave dub reggae: “You tease with your fake democracy,” Anika accuses. The band close the album with Beige, a morose miniature, then the corrosively echoey Killjoy: once again, that loud, emphatic bass is a dead ringer for Jah Wobble in his early days with PiL.

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.”

A Playful, Entertaining, Expertly Choreographed Change of Pace for the Satoko Fujii Orchestra New York

This is not to suggest that there could possibly be any upside to the coronavirus crisis for anyone other than a criminal – but at least it’s been a chance to catch up on what one of this era’s most distinctively prolific composers and pianists, Satoko Fujii, has been up to lately. She records pretty much everywhere she plays: the ratio of greatness to mere goodness in her work is superhuman. Her latest album – at least last time anybody here checked – is Entity, with her Orchestra New York, whose 2017 Fukushima Suite ranks with any other big band jazz album released this century.

In general, this one is either more sardonically funny or soberly shamanistic, without the outright rage and terror invoked by that landmark work. As usual, it’s packed with tightly choreographed moments for collective improvisation: it careens and sways, but it doesn’t swing in the usual sense of the word. These are long songs, going on for ten or fifteen minutes at a clip.

The album opens with the title track, a diptych, kickking off with hints of a shamanic beat, squiggly guitar effects, and finally a massed, microtonal march that drummer Ches Smith tumbles around until six-string guy Nels Cline hits a mighty boom and the music falls away. Cline’s roars and toxically bubbling trails bring the orchestra back in, rising up this time, as the drums go completely hardcore: this music has a very 80s downtown New York feel. The second part is much more ominously airy until Fujii signals a return to that twistedly, stairstepping march.

Flashback begins with a less pronounced martial beat: with its surreal volleys of microtonal triplets from the horns, it’s an action movie theme in disguise. A wry good cop/bad cop conversation between bassist Stomu Takeishi and trombonist Joe Fiedler falls away for a playfully glissandoing alto sax solo by Oscar Noriega, setting up a spaciously chattering rise by the whole band. Then it’s trumpeter Herb Robertson who gets to tickle the rhythm section, up to a series of tongue-in-cheek false endings.

Hypnotic sheets of sound from the reeds shift slowly through the sonic picture as Gounkaiku takes shape. A stately, syncopated, characteristically catchy processional follows, Pink Floyd’s Atom Heart Mother through a funhouse mirror. Trumpeter Dave Ballou’s jaunty, straightforward solo finally falls apart into squiggliness just as the orchestra decide to stop messing around and get serious. Fujii being a Libra, she knows a good dialectic when she hears one, underscored by how she brings the music full circle.

In Elementary Particle, Takeishi’s Briggs and Stratton engine burble mingles with alto saxophonist Ellery Eskelin’s shivery lines, orchestral atmospherics punching in and out: we get a redemptively crazy coda. The final cut, Everlasting, has symphonic majesty, Cline’s stratospheric flute-like melody anchored by growly bass and a Japanese folk-tinged melody. Then buffoonery ensues: first trumpeter Natsuki Tamura irresistibly antagonizing trombonist Curtis Hassellbring, then alto player Briggan Krauss and baritonist Andy Laster playing tag like a couple of of four-year-olds.

This isn’t Fujii’s most accessible work, but it’s very entertaining, another triumph for a band which also includes reedman Tony Malaby. Like many other albums released during this spring’s crisis, it hasn’t hit the web yet.

Celestially Orchestral Lushness and Persistent Unease on Lisa Hannigan’s Live Album

We may not have concerts in New York right now, but more and more artists are realizing the benefits of recording live albums. Unless you make your albums on your phone – as many do – it’s infinitely cheaper to record a concert than to run up studio time. And live albums are the best advertising: prospective concergoers know exactly what they’re getting themselves into. One relatively recent one that perfectly fits the zeitgeist is Live in Dublin, by Lisa Hannigan and S t a r g a z e (that’s how she spells it), streaming at Spotify.

Hannigan has a soaring, nuanced voice and stately cadences that reflect the folk tradition of her native Ireland. Her lyrics are pensive and often rather dark. The concert’s opening waltz, Ora, perfectly capsulizes the balance of persistent unease and lush, starry atmosphere that will pervade the rest of the set. The long, sustained tones of the strings and woodwinds are a throwback to the terse orchestral arrangements common on European folk-rock records of the early 70s. Then the bass and drums kick in elegantly behind an upward swirl from the strings as the soul-tinged piano ballad Prayer For the Dying gets underway: Radiohead meets Renaissance.

Twinkling mandolin and vibraphone mingle above the increasingly lavish backdrop of Little Bird. “You are lonely as a church despite the queueing out the door – I am empty as a promise,” Hannigan muses.

Insistently slurry strings and ominous brass swells build unsettling druidic ambience in Undertow. Overtones rise in a similarly suspenseful vein from the low brass drone that introduces Bookmark, a swing ballad stripped to its bare, fingerpicked bones: “Am I a friend, or an unwieldy heroine?” Hannigan ponders.

The band take a break for the rustic vocal harmonies of Anahorish, which foreshadows what Irish immigrants would bring with them to Appalachia. The tenderness of Hannigan’s vocals bely the melancholy, pulsing orchestral textures of Nowhere to Go. The energy of the concert hits a high point with Lo, a moody anthem with a neat web of counterpoint.

They back away for a trip-hop sway with Swan, which the orchestra elevates above the level of generic 90s pop. A hushed gloom grows more enveloping in We the Drowned, up to a mighty, stricken intensity with eerie backing vocals and echo phrases from the orchestra: it’s the high point of the show. After that, there’s nowhere to go but down with Lille, a spare, gently fingerpicked, wistful folk-rock ballad.

After that, A Sail comes as a surprise, a stomping, insistent, backbeat anthem and the most unselfconsciously catchy song of the set. The group shift from hazy atmospherics to equally hypnotic but more energetic trip-hop with Barton and close the night with Fall, an attractively strummy anthem: “Drain the spirits from the jar, hop the fences, steal the car,” Hannigan instructs rather somberly.

Preservation Hall Jazz Band Bring Cuba to New Orleans, and Vice Versa

Listening to a gargantuan five-album set of New Orleans music (see yesterday’s piece here) makes a person hungry for more. So today’s album is the Preservation Hall Jazz Band’s latest release, the soundtrack to the documentary film A Tuba to Cuba, streaming at Bandcamp. It’s a throwback to the days of Machito and the first wave of Afro-Cuban music making its way to these shores, tracing bassist Ben Jaffe’s trip with the band to Cuba for some deep roots immersion. If you like your salsa on the organic side, this is for you.

Being on the gulf, New Orleans played an enormous role in helping spread American jazz, blues, soul, country and gospel sounds to Mexico and points further south. And that pollintation worked both ways. So it only makes sense that the revered, multi-generational band – who’ve always played a lot more than just New Orleans jazz – would look to Cuba for inspiration.

With its smoky sax, echoey Rhodes piano and slinky salsa percussion section, the album’s first track, Timba, comes across as a mashup of the Meters, Morphine and slinky Afro-Cuban traditions. The second cut, simply titled Descarga (which makes sense since it’s a hypnotic one-chord jam) has spiky cuatro and energetic call-and-response vocals from the group’s Cuban collaborators in lieu of the band’s legendary brass. They bring all that back in I Am, a jubilant soprano sax-driven cha-cha, then take it down again with the balmy, vamping sax-and-Rhodes ballad Corazon.

With Keep Your Head Up, they take a cheery mambo and make a second-line march out of it. Then they invoke the ancient Yoruba spirits with stirring vocal harmonies in a shout-out to the god of good times, Ellegua. The album’s best track is Kreyol, part biting minor-key cha-cha, part New Orleans shuffle, with more than a hint of dub reggae. Another standout is Paloma, a brief, rustic bolero for just cuatro and vocals.

The band return to summery sax-and-Rhodes ambience in Solitude, picking up the pace with the careening, shuffling Manicero, a slightly out-of-tune tres adding to the haphazard energy. They wind up the record with Malecon, a starry mambo.

Although the group tour from time to time, they typically hang close to their home base. So it was a rare treat to be able to catch them live, early one afternoon in downtown Brooklyn in the summer of 2017. Even at that early hour, they were even more adrenalizing than they are on this record, with a fiery, solo-centric mix of marches, funk, expansively brassy jazz and brooding soul themes.

The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival Compilation: Five Albums of Crescent City Madness

What can you do when you’re unemployed (temporarily, let’s hope) and your city’s nightlife has gone completely dark? You could fire up Bandcamp and listen to all five of the albums of Jazz Fest: the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival compilation. In a sick way, most New Yorkers will never have as much time on our hands as we do now – and let’s all swear that we will never again use this same excuse for sitting around listening to long albums!

This playlist spans several decades of revelry. Pretty much every style of music and every culture to ever play the festival are represented here – historically, New Orleans has been a melting pot every bit as diverse as New York. There are a lot of big names from across the years, a bunch of standards and many rare treats as well. In general, these are LONG songs: if you can multitask, the compilation has you covered for two days of a work week.

It’s a mixed bag. Some of the segues are jarring, and you can quit halfway through album five without missing anything. Giving Kenny Neal and his generic blues band fifteen minutes, more than just about anybody else, to phone in a medley was a waste. Surely the compilers could have found something more compelling from Professor Longhair than the song where he plays a trebly Wurlitzer…and whistles. Notwithstanding how much great material Preservation Hall Jazz Band have put out lately, we get…My Bucket’s Got a Hole In It? And who really wants to hear all the band intros at the end of a rote version of a familiar Clarence Frogman Henry novelty song?

That’s the bad news. The good news is that there’s a ton of great material you can use for your own playlists. You can tell from the first few close harmonies of Hey, Now Baby that it’s Henry Butler at the piano. The Dirty Dozen Brass Band are represented by a pouncing guitar-and-sax-fueled 2004 take of Blackbird Special. Dr. John’s emphatic, darkly stirring Litanie des Saints and a smoldering, vengeful, psychedelic take of I Walk on Gilded Splinters could be the high point of the whole album. The soulful John Boutte contributes a simmering post-Katrina parable, Louisiana 1927, a tale of “Twelve feet of water in the Lower Nine….They’re trying to wash us away, don’t let ’em!”

The Al Belletto Big Band bring the storm with their mambo-tinged Jazzmocracy. Bluesman Champion Jack Dupree and pianist Allen Toussaint deliver Bring Me Flowers While I’m Living with plenty of gallows humor, then cut loose in Rub a Little Boogie. Toussaint turns in a brass-fueled Yes We Can Can, as well as What Is Success, with Bonnie Raitt on sunbaked slide guitar, a little later on.

The expansive, oldtimey version of Summertime, by the Original Liberty Jazz Band featuring Dr. Michael White is strikingly fresh. The bursts from the choir in Ain’t Nobody Can Do Me Like Jesus, by Raymond Myles with the Gospel Soul Children are viscerally breathtaking. The Zion Harmonizers‘ I Want to Be At the Meeting and Golden Gate Gospel Train are just as stirring instrumentally as they are vocally.

The accordion/fiddle harmonies of the Savoy Family Cajun Band‘s Midland Two Step are especially juicy. When Beausoleil‘s sad twelve-string guitar waltz Recherche d’Acadie finally appears, four albums in, it’s actually a welcome break from all the relentless good cheer. Shortly afterward, the Neville Brothers’ slow-burning Yellow Moon rises to an eerily surreal halfspeed dixieland raveup. And bluesman John Mooney’s It Don’t Mean a Doggone Thing, Deacon John‘s Happy Home and Sonny Landreth‘s Blue Tarp Blues each have some sizzling slide guitar. Those are just some of the highlights: at this point, it’s time to stop and turn it over to you. Enjoy.

Relentless, Starkly Exhilarating Microtonal String Music From the Apollo Chamber Players and Vanessa Vo

Of all the albums released this year, the Apollo Chamber Players‘ collaboration with Vanessa Vo, Within Earth – streaming at Spotify– perfectly fits the zeitgeist. It’s a meticulous yet robust and relentlessly uneasy collection of stunningly acerbic pieces for strings and the elegantly warptoned Vietnamese dan bau. It would not be hubris to call this music Bartokian. It’s easy to read the album as a suite: the short segments and otherworldliness bring to mind the work of the late, great microtonal composer Ben Johnston, the more rhythmic sections evoking Julia Wolfe‘s string quartets. And the slides, and pings, and swoops of the dan bau are the icing on the cake.

The group – violinists Anabel Ramirez Detrick and Matthew Detrick, violist Whitney Bullock and cellist Matthew Dudzik – open the album with Leo Brouwer’s Nostalgia de las Montañas, beginning with deliciously pulsing, disquieting close harmonies, descending to almost total silence, then the cello guides the music upward to a brooding intensity. Subtle microtones invade those terse riffs, raising the angst. The ensemble really embrace that as the music grows more surreal. The second movement balances catchy counterpoint against moments of fleeting terror, starkly airy textural contrasts, and a flurrying disquiet.

Christopher Walczak’s Four Dreams is a triptych. Bullock’s viola adds spiky textures as the first part pulses darkly on the wings of the cello, the rest of the ensemble negotiating the music’s persistent relentlessness, intermingled with subtle, Asian-tinged riffs. Part two is somewhat calmer, more about fleeting exchanges, furtive flickers and simple, direct motives, with a funereal pulse at the end. The final one has similar, more lively counterpoint balanced by shimmery, sustained harmony – but also an siren riff and unresolved bluster.

Vo and Vũ Nhât Tân’s considerly more lighthearted, picturesque epic Cloud opens with keening, lapsteel-like swoops from the dan bau. As the strings behind Vo take a rhythmically staggered, microtonal stroll behind her, the effect is deliciously disorienting. This skyscape takes many shapes: imperturbable wisps dancing above massed grey washes, then the rest of the strings join Vo in a joyous, celestial ballet. Is that a theremin, or just a pitch pedal? There’s a lone cirrus cloud, cumulo-nimbus on the horizon, and a parade of varying shapes passing through the frame, coalescing and then receding. What a strange, fun piece of music!

The album’s final piece is Alexandra du Bois nocturnal tone poem, Within Earth, Wood Grows. The group rise from warm, verdant resonance, bolstered by clarinet, horn and low-key percussion, then recede to starry stillness. The timbres are pure Beethoven, the composition closer to Gerard Grisey. A brief march dissolves in a wash of microtones; a spare, deep-space conversation between oboe and dan bau is one of the album’s most unselfconsciously beautiful moments. What an incredible find!

Gentle, Expertly Textured Psychedelic Pop From Green and Glass

Green and Glass sometimes sound like a warmer, female-fronted Radiohead. Other times they come across as a calmer Arc Iris. Keyboards swoosh, filter and rise through the mix over a slow sway as frontwoman Lucia Stavros shifts from soaringly anxious highs to a more plainspoken delivery in the middle registers. They like to cap off a long crescendo with low-key trumpet…and they have a concert harp in the band. Their debut album is streaming at Bandcamp.

They open with an eponymous, soul-tinged ballad, Stavros’ tenderly resonant vocals over a slow, gentle trip-hop groove delicately flavored with Andrew McGovern”s trumpet alongside her harp. She reaches for the stratosphere over a loopy harp riff in 14 Hours; then a techy, blippy electric piano pulse takes over – that could also be Stavros, or sax/keys player Sam Decker..

Imagine Portishead with a harp and an unadorned, folky lead vocal, and you get the album’s third track, Black Hole. In Sand, they add spare, tremoloing electric guitar, and bassist Ryan Dugre turns up his treble to cut through the mix. Then they build SMC slowly and resolutely out of a circling, Afrobeat-tinged riff that begins with spiky guitar harmonics.

David Flaherty’s drums drop out for Another One, a brief, hazy tone poem awash in dreampop reverb. They bring back the neosoul tinges in Good Enough For Some: spare, watery chorus-box guitar adds a welcome disquiet behind the sheen. If psych-pop maven Jenifer Jackson played the harp, she could have come up with Gabriel.

The ninth track, Wash, is pretty much that, as is the one afterward: sometimes bands have a hard time discerning between minimal and prosaic. They come full circle with the closing cut, Corona (recorded long before the current crisis, and completely unrelated), a trippy, gently optimistic trip-hop tune: it could be early, low-key My Brighest Diamond. Most of this makes a good playlist for an early summer afternoon (which means April or May these days), sitting by the river, one-hitter in your pocket, plotting your next move.

A Long-Awaited, Darkly Brilliant Gem of a Debut Album From Ben Holmes’ Naked Lore

Over the past couple of years, trumpeter Ben HolmesNaked Lore trio became one of the most consistently edgy, entertaining bands in the Barbes scene. Considering how many dozens of other great artists rotate through Brooklyn’s best (and currently shuttered) music venue, that’s a major achievement.

But Holmes has been a mainstay, playing everything from klezmer to ska there since the zeros, and guitarist Brad Shepik and multi-percussionist Shane Shanahan have long resumes in jazz that slinks toward the Middle East. With this group, the goal is to reinvent old klezmer themes and introduce new ones. If you’re a fan of old Jewish folk tunes from across the diaspora, you’ll hear a lot of familiar minor-key riffs here, beamed down to a completely new planet. Their debut album is streaming at Bandcamp.

They open the album with a diptych, Invocation 1/Snake Money, an airy, spacious, allusively chromatic trumpet solo leading into a suspensefully pulsing, flamenco-tinged groove. From there Shepik’s fleet-fingered flurries and Shanahan’s snakecharmer beats underpin the bandleader’s lively, spacious, klezmer-infused phrasing. Ibrahim Maalouf’s most upbeat work comes to mind.

The second track is titled 543, a Smile, and Bullshit, reflecting Holmes wry stage presence as well as the whole group’s immersion in Balkan music. This one has a tricky groove that seems Macedonian, deliciously biting upper-register chords from Shepik, trumpet floating and trilling uneasily overhead..

Shepik plays clanging, overtone-laden Portuguese twelve-string guitar in the steady, jauntily strolling, tantalizingly gorgeous Swamplands Chusidl and sticks with it in the hypnotically circling Interlude on Avenue J, a throwback to the more postbop jazz-inflected style Holmes mined on his Balkan jazz record Gold Dust.

Another crystalline, unsettled trumpet taqsim, Invocation II leaps and bounds, introducing The Dust of Unremembering; Shepik runs a moody acoustic guitar loop as Shanahan fires off machinegunning riffs and Holmes hangs low and ominous, a stormcloud above all the scampering.

The Sunbeast Emerges, with its moody bolero tinges, is another killer track: it sounds like a Serbian take what could be a catchy, incisive Michael Winograd tune, no surprise considering how much time Holmes has spent in the clarinetist’s band. Shepik’s spiraling, spine-tingling solo is one of the album’s high points.

Two Oh No’s and an Oh! no No! is not a Yoko Ono paraphrase: it’s a dusky, Indian-flavored theme built around a Shepik chromatic loop, Holmes moodily choosing his spots over Shanahan’s clip-clop attack, the guitarist adding a wickedly Middle Eastern solo.

First We Were Sad, Then We Danced is a pretty self-explanatory hora, a high-voltage concert favorite: the trio add smoldering flamenco flavor and then an absolutely surreal new wave rock pulse. They wind up the album with the unselfconsciously poignant waltz All Together, a subtle mix of klezmer, pastoral American jazz and the Balkans.

All of these guys have done great work over the years but this is a high point for everybody in the band. No wonder they’ve stuck together so long. If it makes sense to put up a best albums of 2020 page at the end of the year – if New York still exists at the end of the year, if we all exist – this will be on it.

A Rare, Spellbinding Set of Moldovan Yiddish Music and More in Midtown

It was almost three weeks ago that the encroaching fear which has since paralzed most of this city threatened to turn a concert by the Vienna Yiddish Duo at the Austrian Cultural Forum into a very sad, lonely Purim party. While not every ticketholder to the sold-out show was there, a robust crowd turned out and were rewarded for their bravery, as a staffer there put it.

In terms of the material on the program, it was fascinating to witness two Moldovan musicians playing it since so much of the klezmer we hear in New York has origins in Romania, or the badlands bordering Ukraine, Lithuania and Poland. And yet, over and over again, pianist Roman Grinberg and clarinetist Sasha Danilov reaffirmed that delicious, chromatic connection shared by so much music from across the Jewish diaspora. Through lilting sher dances, a couple of boisterously bouncing freylachs, a plaintive doina and a hora that the two finally took to the rafters with a big crescendo, they reveled in those bracing minor keys.

But that wasn’t the case with everything on the bill. Grinberg has a gruff baritone, a flair for the theatrical and strong, emphatic chops on the piano. Over and over again, Danilov blew the crowd away with his reed-warping microtones, crystalline sustained lines, a couple of superhuman displays of circular breathing and rapidfire, perfectly precise volleys of notes that went faster and faster as Grinberg spurred him on. Several of those numbers – including a surprisingly un-schmaltzy, angst-fueled take of the ballad Mein Yiddishe Mama – reflected a warmly consonant classical influence, no surprise coming from a Vienna-based group.

There was plenty more lighthearted material on the bill as well. Grinberg seemed surprised that everybody in the crowd knew Tumbalalaika, which drew some chuckles. The duo’s fleet-fingered take of A Bisschen a Mazel (A Little Luck) was as wryly amusing as it could have been, along with a soaring take of the Yiddish theatre ballad I Love You Much Too Much, complete with a slashing Astor Piazzolla quote toward the end.

“This wasn’t on the program, but I think we should play it,” Grinberg told the crowd before launching into Abi Gezunt, another dark-tinged cabaret number whose cynical message is basically, “Well, at least you have your health.” The two got serious at the end, with a whirlwind, crescendoing, Moldovan take of the Klezmer Freylach and then a bittersweet, rather gorgeous ballad with a message of hope: “When you go over the bridge, never be afraid,” Grinberg reflected somberly.

The Austrian Cultural Forum’s schedule of performances has been shut down until further notice, pending the outcome of the coronavirus crisis.