New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Category: rock music

Psychedelic Cumbia Icons Chicha Libre Reunite at Barbes

It was late 2006 at a long-gone Curry Hill honkytonk “I’ve got this Peruvian surf band playing on Sundays that you should really check out,” the club’s talent buyer suggested to an e-zine publisher who would eventually become the proprietor of a daily New York music blog. The future blog owner never made it to Rodeo Bar to see an embryonic Chicha Libre, but the group did go on to become the funnest band in New York, toured internationally and also pretty much singlehandedly introduced psychedelic cumbia to the world north of the equator.

They played a brief, maybe 45-minute set at their longtime home base, Barbes last night. It was their first New York show since early 2015, but it was like they’d never left. It was amazing to watch the faces of pretty much everybody in the band. The expressions spoke for themselves: “I can’t believe we’irre doing this, and that it’s still this fun.”

Vincent Douglas is still the most economical yet tersely slashing surf cumbia guitarist on the planet – this time he hit his distortion pedal again and again, for simmer and burn and sunbaked ambience. Frontman/cuatro player Olivier Conan is more serioso in front of the band than ten years ago, notwithstanding the fact that this multinational act is just as much a copycat as the Peruvian cult favorites they imitate were, forty and fifty years ago.

Conguero Neil Ochoa had the songs’ machinegunning turnarounds down cold; timbalera Karina Colis not only added extra layers of devious flurries, but also perfectly replicated Alyssa Lamb’s vocal harmonies from the band’s first two records. Bassist Nick Cudahy held the center while Josh Camp used two small keyboards and a labyrinth of effects pedals for a decent recreation of the tremoloing, oscillating, keening dubwise effects he used to get out of an old Hohner Electrovox synth. Maybe it’s a lot easier to switch between a couple of keyboards than to strap on the heavy accordion body that houses the Electrovox. “Electronics have always been an issue for this band,” Conan confided.

The songs were sublime: jangly, and trebly, and swooshy, just like the classic Peruvian bands the group modeled themselves after. Pretty much everybody in the crowd was dancing or at least bouncing. Surprisingly, the one song that gave the band trouble was the broodingly otherworldly Sonido Amazonico, the national anthem of chicha and title track of their classic 2007 album. But no matter – they jammed it out, a little faster and more dubwise than they used to do it

The uneasily waltzing Depresion Tropical, a snide commentary on IMF bloodsucking in the Caribbean, had special resonance. Camp sang a cumbia version of Love’s Alone Again Or. Conan’s account of the little drunk guy in El Borrachito, who tells a girl in the bar that she should stop picking on him and be his girlfriend – in Spanish, obviously – was as cruelly funny as it was when the band played it ten years ago here. Same with the tightly shuffling Hungry Song, told from the point of view of a couple of guys who are so high they can’t tell weed from chicha. Speaking of which, Barbes now has that sour, beerlike corn mash liquor on draft. As a thirst-quencher on hot days, it’s better than beer.

They closed with their outrageously silly cover of the schlocky cheesy pioneering 1972 proto-symthpop hit, Popcorn, They’re back at Barbes tomorrow night, June 26 at 10, and if stoner music, or dance music, or cumbia is your thing, this may be your only chance to see this band, ever. They’re doing a couple of South American dates next, but after that, who knows.

A Rare Free Show by Iconic Rock Storyteller Wreckless Eric at Union Pool

Whether on his own or playing with his wife Amy Rigby, Wreckless Eric is one of the great storytellers in rock. His album Construction Time & Demolition – streaming at Bandcamp – is arguably his darkest and most saturnine record in a career that started back in the proto-punk era. This one’s a mix of snarling, guitar-fueled post-Velvets rock and noisy, dissociative guitar soundscapes. He plays all the guitars and bass, backed by drums plus a horn section on a handful of cuts. He’s playing one of this summer’s series of free weekend shows at Union Pool on July 3 at around 4 PM.

The first track is Gateway to Europe, a catchy, matter-of-factly swaying, brassy yet sobering look at decaying rustbelt European desperation:

Move the people out to where the buses run
But no one knows where they go….
Old glories fade away, derelicted houses, the ghosts of yesterday
Ruined factories on the east side of town
They’re slated for revival, they’ll soon be coming down

“All there is, is time: hold that thought and it’s gone,” Eric muses in the broodingly cinematic miniature The World Revolved Around Me. He follows that with Flash, a chugging, surreal late-night neo-Velvets tableau, its isolated narrator “Sick on Christmas chocolates and cheery Christmas cheer.”

The next track is the obliquely political They Don’t Mean No Harm – “But that don’t make them harmless,” Eric explains. “There’s no democracy, just chrome-plated armor….the dark ages of man crawl onto land. His cynical but sage worldview permeates Wow and Flutter, contemplating rockstar envy over ominous mid-90s Blur chord changes: it’s the album’s most memorable track.

The echoey, clanging, trippy Forget Who You Are could be the Brian Jonestown Massacre: “Everything is gonna be groovy, like some happy clappy Iphone movie,” Eric intones, echoing George Orwell’s observarions on how people become so spellbound by technology that they don’t notice how it enslaves them:

No one can see your face anymore
Nobody one can hear you cry,
They control the circumstances
The how the what the when and the why

Moody Fender Rhodes piano mingles with Eric’s guitar multitracks for a Dark Side-era Floyd ambience in 40 Years, a not-so-fond look back at a dissolute early life and its lingering effects. It segues into The Two of Us, an angushed, swirling blend of new wave and the Velvets. The album comes full circle with the glamrock-tinged, apocalyptic Unnatural Acts: “We were descended from dinosaurs, we weren’t meant to survive.”

There are also a couple of brief, loping instrumental interludes titled Mexican Fenders, the second a lot louder. Guitarists agree that Fender guitars manufactored before the company was sold to CBS in the mid-60s are great instruments – and hardly any working musician actually owns one, since they sell for tens of thousands of dollars on the collector market. Whether Mexican-made Fenders from the CBS era are inferior to American-made models from that time is a question of debate. The consensus is that either way, both typically sound better than the Japanese-built ones. At the rate we’re going, someday Japanese Fenders may be prized for being superior to ones made from slave labor a lot closer to home.

Eleni Mandell’s Best Album Offers Grim Insight Into Survival in the Prison-Industrial Complex

Eleni Mandell got the inspiration for her new album, Wake Up Again, behind bars. No, she wasn’t doing time. She was teaching songwriting as part of the Jail Guitar Doors program founded by the MC5’s Wayne Kramer. The record – streaming at Spotify – is surprisingly her most indie rock-flavored release to date, at least until about the halfway point. But it’s also her most relevant, and most lyrically powerful. These clear-eyed, sobering songs elegantly and often allusively chronicle the cycles of despair, and addiction, and hopelessness of being caught in the prison-industrial compex. As Mandell makes crystal clear, orange is anything but the new black. She’s currently on tour, with a New York stop on June 27 at 9:30 PM at the big room at the Rockwood; cover is $15

Milo Jones’ reverbtoned guitar weaves enigmatically, going nowhere in particular, throughout the album’s opening track, Circumstance, Mandell matter-of-factly traces the outline of a woman caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, knowing that her babies will grow up without her.

“Got my foot out the window it’s a long way down, if you know the secret password there’s another way around,” Mandell explains in Be Together. “Am I waiting for a punishment for all the time I wasted?” she asks. In a career packed with some of the most captivating vocals ever recorded, this is one of Mandell’s most shattering.

Just Herself is just as harrowing, a resolutely waltzing account of someone who’s just as much of an outsider on the inside as she was before she got thrown in jail. Evelyn, a throwback to Mandell’s days as queen of late 90s/early zeros noir, underscores the fact that a large percentage of people in the prison-industrial complex – and the majority of the women there – aren’t criminals. They’re addicts, and people who sold them substances, some of which have been legalized in the years since many of these prisoners were locked up.

“Don’t ask when it was better – she would say that was never,” Mandell intones in Box in a Box, a catchy, gritty account of what could be solitary confinement, or addiction, or both. A brisk, subtly torchy backbeat number, Oh Mother could be a sideways tribute from a prisoner to a mom who managedto stay out of trouble – or the child of a prisoner admiring her mother’s resilience.

The gloom lifts in the quirky, upbeat, country-tinged What’s Your Handle (Radio Waves), following a thinly veiled escape theme that resurfaces a bit later in Air, a similarly bubbling, Americana-tinged number. Empty Locket, a duet with Jones, recounts a wistful, one-sided long-distance phone coversation.

Slowly swaying over Kevin Fitzgerald’s brushy drums and Ryan Feves’ bass, the country lament Ghost of a Girl is the closest thing here to Mandell’s signature noir Americana. The album close with another country waltz, the surreal, enigmatic title track. In a way, it’s no surprise that Mandell, an icon of noir since the late 90s, would end up behind bars – songwriting-wise, anyway. The most basic rule in noir is that ultimately there are none – and the consequences can be lethal.

The Black Capsule Bring Their Epic, Surreal, Cynical Psychedelia to Unexpected Places

Psychedelic band the Black Capsule like long songs. Unlike what their name might imply, speed is not their thing. There’s no other New York band who sound like anything like them, although there are a whole lot of old bands who do. This crew draw on oldschool soul, the more pensive side of Hendrix and stoner 70s art-rock. British psych legends the Frank Flight Band are a good comparison, although the Black Capsule are more cynical and quintessentially New York. Their album is up at Bandcamp as a free download.

Now, there are plenty of decent venues in this town where psychedelia can be found: where are these guys taking the stage on June 20 at around 9? At Baby’s All Right? No. Union Pool? No. Trans-Pecos, Gold Sounds, Coney Island Baby? No, no and no. They’re playing the Bitter End. Cover isn’t listed on the club webpage, but it’s usually ten bucks there. Make sure to find some standing room because the moment you sit down, the waitress will try to stick you for a drink minimum.

The album’s catchy opening track is pretty short by comparison to the rest of the material, clocking in at less than six minutes. It’s a swaying latin soul-tinged anthem, like Chicano Batman at their most sprawling, acoustic and electric guitar textures mingling with Rhodes piano and then swirly organ as it hits a peak. “She was high, she was high, she was high when she was coming down,” the frontman (uncredited on the group’s Bandcamp page) intones in his flinty voice.

Joanna is an increasingly creepy chronicle of failed relationships – think a more vengeful, eleven-minute take on what the Nails did with 88 Lines About 44 Women, with a bridge nicked from Pink Floyd:

After all the cigarettes”
I’m just left with cheap regrets
Take me to your dear dark cave
I promise that I won’t behave

After All is a slightly more focused remake of the Velvets’ Heroin: same two-chord vamp, similar junkie milieu. half-baked Allan Brothers guitar jam on the long way out. Random Thoughts (yes, that’s the title) is a twisted mashup of LA Woman-era Doors, Dark Side-era Floyd and acid funk: it’s the closest thing to Frank Flight here, growly bass poking up through the murk and the smoky organ.

Imagine Hendrix if he hadn’t been a shredder and had an organ in the band: that’s Red Morning, a sort of Fourth Stone From the Sun. The band stagger toward stoner boogie territory, and more Hendrix, with SWLABR. Then they offer a nod to the mean side of the Grateful Dead with The Netherlands. The album’s most epic, final track is Desperate Daze: It’s their Midnight Rambler.

On one hand, this album is like a stoner dad’s record collection: if you know what’s in it, you’ll recognize every stolen lick here. On the other, there’s no denying this band’s epic ability to keep you listening. if you’re, um, in the mood

Soaring, Haunting Folk Noir Band Bobtown Make a Mighty Return to the Stage

Bobtown are the most individualistic folk noir band you could possibly imagine. They have soaring three-part vocal harmonies – and they’re fronted by their drummer. They’ve also been AWOL lately since they’ve been working on a new album. Last weekend, they packed the big room at the Rockwood and played most of the tracks from the record, Chasing the Sun, due out at the end of next month. If the show was any indication, it’s going to be amazing.

Everybody in the band plays a lot of instruments. Bandleader Katherine Etzel began the show on ukulele, then switched to a big, imposing standup drumkit. Karen Dahlstrom played guitar for most of the set but then broke out her banjo, something she rarely does live. Jen McDearman took turns on both lead and harmony vocals while adding percussion and eerily twinkling glockenspiel. Alan Lee Backer switched between electric and acoustic lead guitar while bassist Dan Shuman held down the low end, bolstered on a couple of tunes by stark resonance from guest cellist Serena Jost (who also plays on the record).

They opened with Devil Down, a brightly shuffling tune with thematic if not musical resemblance to Tom Waits’ Down in the Hole:. As Etzel intimated, the new album is slightly more optimistic than the ghostly tales that populate much of the band’s previous output. After that, McDearman didn’t waste any time taking the music back in that direction with Hazel, a banjo number about a crazy woman who’s reached the end of her rope.

Etzel went back to lead vocals for Let You Go, a kiss-off anthem with echoes of the chain gang songs the band were exploring in the early part of the decade. Daughters of the Dust, a spaghetti western bluegrass tune, kept the charming/sinister dynamic going, the women’s shiny harmonies in contrast with the emotionally depleted Dust Bowl narrative. Then they picked up the pace with the Buddy Holly-ish Come on Home.

In My Bones turned out to be classic Bobtown, a chirpy, blackly amusing tune about how to cheat the man in black when he makes a “certain visitation.” With its hushed ambience, This Is My Heart could have been an especially melancholy number from a Dolly Parton bluegrass record. Then the group built to a big, vamping peak with Kryptonite and its Hey Jude-style chorus.

The biggest surprise of the night, with Jost on cello again, was a slow, spare, hazy cover of Tom Petty’s American Girl: who knew the lyrics were so sad? They closed with the night’s most mighty, majestic number, No Man’s Land, sung with gospel-infused intensity by Dahlstrom. In a year of full-frontal assaults on women’s rights from Ohio all the way to the Mexican border, it’s a new national anthem:

No man’s words can still my voice
No man can tell me where I stand
No man’s will can take my choice
I am no man’s land

Horror Surf Legends the Coffin Daggers Play the Best Rock Show of 2019 So Far

The Coffin Daggers played what could have been the best rock show of 2019 at Otto’s just over a month ago. They might not just be the best horror surf band in the world. Since Dick Dale left us earlier this year, it wouldn’t be overhype to call them the best surf band around, period. And that’s no disrespect to Los Straitjackets. It’s just that the Coffin Daggers are infinitely more intense – and infinitely darker.

They opened the show with a series of endings, letting the crowd know that this was going to be a descent into the maelstrom. It was like Beethoven in reverse, and ten times as gothic. From there, they went straight for grimly enveloping psychedelia with an extended version of Avenue X, an older tune. Guitarist Viktor Venom’s Fender amp pulsed with icy waves of deep-space noise when he wasn’t ripping through one volley of machete tremolo-picking after another, standing calm and relatively motionless at the edge of the stage.

Bassist Peter Klarnet was the opposite, lunging toward the crowd like a rabid animal on a chain as he slammed out booming chords, slithery upward climbs and snidely slurring riffs. There’s been some turnover in the band over the years; their current drummer has the agility of their original guy behind the kit, but with a more ferocious attack. Their organist conjured up vampire castles, haunted roller rinks and on a couple of screamingly sarcastic faux go-go tunes, played more or less straight up Booker T. Jones-style soul. He also added burning, distorted rhythm guitar on a few of the band’s more straightforwardly punk tunes.

But was the macabre material they do best, and there was a lot of it. The best material of the night was the newest stuff: a couple of searing, serpentine, eerily modal, Middle Eastern-flavored numbers along with a pair of chromatically thumping tunes like Dick Dale on steroids. A couple of other ones echoed Vegas noir, but from a gleefully sarcastic distance.

A lengthy, unexpectedly dubwise interlude had several cruel quotes including a half a verse of the Dead Kennedys’ Holiday in Cambodia. They closed with what sounded like a parody of retro 70s stoner boogie; the last of the encores had a savage, phony salsa fanfare from the organ at the end.

The Coffin Daggers usually much larger venues: the Mercury has been their Manhattan home base in recent months. They’re playing at around 9 on June 22, immediately following this years’s Mermaid Parade, on the roof of Kitchen 21 at 3052 W 21st St, right off the boardwalk. Cover is $25.

Celebrating One of Manhattan’s Most Fearless Impresarios at the Borough’s Best Listening Room

There aren’t many venues left anywhere in New York where you can walk in on just about any show night and randomly discover a great new band or solo artist. But you can still do that at the American Folk Art Museum. The museum earned this blog’s award for Best Manhattan Venue a couple of years ago, largely because of impresario Lara Ewen, who brings in a wildly diverse and frequently excellent mix of global folk styles along with Americana and singer-songwriters.

Ewen is turning fifty this June 14, and an all-star cast (she isn’t saying who, just yet) are on tap to come out to celebrate at her mostly-weekly Free Music Fridays series at the museum starting at 5:30 PM. Ewen’s booking (and her songwriting) reflect her background growing up in working-class, multicultural Queens. Three recent discoveries there – for this blog, at least – reflect Ewen’s ferocious dedication to bringing in music that represents the real New York.

In his debut at the museum this past spring, Greg Connors played electric guitar – not something you’d expect at a venue originally know for folk music, but Ewen likes to defy the odds. He ran his axe through a pedalboard with a lot of effects, flinging chords out into the space’s natural reverb and building to stomping, singalong choruses. His lyrics are edgy and cynical; his songs tell brooding stories set among the down-and-out without being cliched. His tantalizingly short set, clocking in at just over a half an hour, reminded of 90s underground songwriting stars Matt Keating or Jim Allen from time to time. If Connors had been around back then, he probably would have been playing CB’s Gallery and Sin-e and the rest of the East Village songwriter venues, all of them gone in a blitzkrieg of gentrification and real estate bubble madness. Connors hangs his hat in Peekskill now – he was awestruck at how attentively the audience at the museum responded, considering that he’s used to singing over crowds of drunks.

In her museum debut a week later, Ruby Landen explored several more traditional folk styles, from Appalachian-flavored balladry to French chanson. Her spare, elegant, eclectic guitar fingerpicking matched her low-key, purposefully plaintive vocals. She’s a relative newcomer to the New York Americana scene, so at the time of her show there was little on the web about her beyond a couple of youtube videos. But Ewen books a lot of good up-and-coming artists regardless of how little-known they are.

Another individualistic artist who’s just getting started and made her debut there last month is Yurby, who has even less of a presence online. There’s nobody in New York who sounds anything like her. Backed for most of her show by a bluesy, jazz-influenced electric guitar, she showed off a disarmingly clear, pure soul voice throughout a catchy mix of slowly unwinding ballads. Once in awhile there’d be a hint of a latin Caribbean influence, but otherwise, it wouldn’t be fair to pigeonhole her as neosoul. And her lyrics deal with empowerment and fighting injustice as much as the usual battle of the sexes. At the end of her set, she treated the crowd to one of those anthems, in Spanish.

Who knows – it wouldn’t be a stretch to see all three of these artists at Ewen’s birthday party. And maybe Ewen herself will treat the crowd to a few numbers – she won’t admit it, but she has one of the most magically mutable voices in town.

Greek Judas Headline One of the Year’s Best Twinbills in the East Village

When Greek Judas took the stage at Niagara at a little after eleven a couple of Thursdays ago, everybody in the crowd suddenly had their phones out. Maybe that was because three of the five guys in the band were wearing animal masks. But it’s more likely that nobody in the audience had ever seen a Greek metal band.

And in that space, they were louder than ever. Singer Quince Marcum projects as well as any other frontman in town, but this time he was low in the mix. When the band got their start, guitarist/lapsteel player Wade Ripka and guitarist Adam Good would typically take long, careening, Middle Eastern-tinged solos. And that worked; both guys love their creepy chromatics, and they can get totally symphonic without being boring. Times have changed: instead of jabbing at each other to pull a song back on track, there’s a lot more interplay and at least semi-controlled chaos now. Ironically, the tighter they get, the more psychedelic the music is.

Bassist Nick Cudahy downtunes his axe now, for some serious tarpit sonics. Meanwhile, drummer Chris Stromquist makes the songs’ tricky rhythms look easy: the way he plays, no matter how bizarre the underlying beat is, you can stand and sway from side to side and not feel any more stoned than you might already be.

Obviously, you don’t have to be high to appreciate the band. One of the reasons why they’ve tightened up the show is that they have a lot more songs and they don’t have to stretch them out so much. They’re all covers, from the 1920s to the 1960s, most of them from the criminal and revolutionary underworld who fought against dictatorial terror and then a British invasion after World War II. Many of those tunes were written by ethnic Greeks who’d escaped persecution in Cyprus and Turkey, only to find themselves second-class citizens in their ancestral land.

The best song of the night was I’m a Junkie, which might have just been a shout-out to good hash, or something stronger – Marcum sings everything in the original Greek. The most lyrically innocuous love song of the night was also one of the most macabre. Police brutality, heavy partying, black humor behind bars, trans-Mediterranean drug smuggling and crack addiction were some of the other topics Marcum addressed – he almost always gives the audience a little translation for just about everything. They’re back at Niagara (Ave. A and 7th St., the former King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut across from the southwest corner of Tompking Square Park) this Thursday at 10. As a bonus, the excellent Trouble with Kittens – who play similarly edgy if somewhat quieter and faster, new wave-influenced songs – open the night at 9. Noir cinematic trio Sexmob‘s brilliant drummer, Kenny Wollesen is sitting in with them this for this show. It’s a pass-the-tip-jar situation.

Brooklyn’s Funnest Band Put Out One of the Most Casually Creepy Albums of 2019

Hearing Things are Brooklyn’s funnest band and have been for the last three years or so. They play dance music that’s equal parts film noir, soul, go-go music, surf rock, creepy psychedelia and new wave. They’ve also been more or less AWOL lately since the core of the band – alto saxopphonist Matt Bauder, organist JP Schlegelmilch and drummer Vinnie Sperrazza – have all been busy with other projects. But they’ve fimally made an album, Here’s Hearing Things – streaming at Bandcamp – and they’re playing the release show at around 9 PM at C’Mon Everybody on May 24. Cover is $10.

Live, the band often sound like the Doors playing surf music, which makes more sense than you might think considering that Ray Manzarek got his start in a surf band. This album starts out in high spirits, gets more sardonic and ends very darkly.

The first track is Shadow Shuffle, a deliciously twisted remake of Green Onions: the band vamp out the second verse instead of sticking with a creepy chromatic reharmonization of the old Booker T & the MG’s hit. Schlegelmilch swirls and Bauder punches in alto and baritone sax parts throughout the catchy Tortuga, a go-go tune as the Stranglers would have done it.

Wooden Leg is a subtly sardonic horror theme in the same vein as Beninghove’s Hangmen, Bauder fluttering furtively in the low registers as the band picks up steam: it’s the album’s most deliciously noir epic.

Likewise, Stalefish is a more traditional, horror surf take on Turkish psychedelia, guitarist Ava Mendoza firing off slashing chords over baritone guitarist Jonny Lam’s snappy, evil basslines. Houndstooth is an evil, faux-loungey take on a blue-flame roadhouse theme, animated by irrepressible flurrying drumwork and more whipcracking from Lam.

Hotel Prison would be slyly swayng take on balmy early 60s summer-place theme music if if wasn’t just a little too outside the lines. The outro is cruelly funny. Mendoze’s echeoey leads contrast with tongue-in-cheek, blippy orgnn. goodnatured sax iand expertly flurrying surf drums n Uncle Jack. Then the band completeley flip the scirpt with Trasnsit of Venus, the band’s first and most trippily macabre adventure in Ethiopian jazz,

The abum’s most epic number, Ideomotor opens with Bauder’s bass clarinet over jungly drums, Schleegelmilch;s organ slinking between them as a brooding, dubwise Ethopian theme gains velocicy. .The album’s fiinal cut is Triplestep, coalescing into a into a menacing mashup of Ethiopiques and a death row strut. Bauder gets the alto and baritone to get the Pink Panther to cross over to the dark side, up to a defiantly soaring alto solo that makes a killer coda for the album as a whole. You’ll see this on the best albums of 2019 page at the end of the year if we get that far.

A Rare City Park Show and a Mighty, Harrowing New Suite From Stephanie Chou

For the last couple of years, Barnard College has staged an amazingly eclectic, entertaining annual concert under the trees in the crabapple grove in Riverside Park just north of 91st Street. This years’s festival is this Satruday night, May 18, starting at 5 PM with one of New York’s most socially relevant and ambitious jazz talents, alto saxophonist/singer Stephanie Chou. This time out she’ll be leading a trio with pianist Jason Yeager and drummer Ronen Itzik Other acts on the bill include the Bacchantae, Barnard College’s all-female a cappella group, ferociously dynamic, tuneful, female-fronted power trio Castle Black, and the Educadorian-flavored Luz Pinos Band

Chou’s latest larger-scale project is titled Comfort Girl. It’s a harrowing, phanstasmagorical song cycle based on the terrors faced by the over two hundred thousand women who were forced into sexual slavery during the Japanese occupation of China during World War II. Some of those women were raped thousands of times. To add insult to injury, when those who survived were able to return home after the Japanese retreat, many of them were shunned. Chou debuted it at Joe’s Pub at the end of March. What was most striking about the show was not only Chou’s ability to shift between musical styles, but her prowess as a lyricist.

A flurry from Kenny Wollesen’s drums signaled the intro to the jaunty march Manchurian Girl, a late 30s Chinese pop hit. The lyrics are innocuous: a young woman waiting for her boo to return home so she can tie the knot. Chou sang it with more than a hint of foreshadowing, the music rising to a shivery tightness, Andy Lin’s vibrato-tinged violin over his sister Kelly Lin’s emphatic piano.

Narrator Peregrine Heard continued the story; girl meets boy and everything seems rosy in the countryside, echoed by a sax-violin duet that began coyly and then took on a swirling, triumphantly pulsing tone which turned wary and enigmatic as the two diverged harmonically.

The violinist switched to the even more shivery, plaintive-toned erhu fiddle for a Chinese parlor-pop ballad of sorts, Forever I Will Sing Your Song, crooner Orville Mendoza’s anticipatory drama contasting with Chou’s more demure delivery. The music grew suddenly chaotic as Japanese soldiers crushed the wedding ceremony, knocking out the groom and tearing his bride away.

Surrealistic piano glimmer over Wollesen’s noir percussion ambience supplied the backdrop for Chou’s wounded vocals in Shattered. Mendoze sang the pretty straight-up, determined piano rock ballad after that, the groom determined to get his beloved back. Meanwhile, she’s being paraded through one of the Japanese rape camps – the euphemistically named “Jade Star Hotel” – along with a group of captives. The piece’s simple military chorus was as chilling as any moment through the show, as was the haunting, phamtasmagorical waltz after that; “No name,, no hope: No life”

The young woman was thrown into a a cell, got a new Japanese name, and with a portentous crescendo and diabolical flickers from the violin, the music became a horror film score, It would have been historically accurate for the music to remain a morass of atonalities and cruel slashes punctuated by brief, mournful stillness, but Chou went deeper, with an aptly aching, Chinese-language ballad, her narravor terrified that her husband-to-be will reject her after all she’s had to suffer.

A coldly circling interlude captured the soldiers in line waiting for their turn with the “military provisions,” as the women were called. “We can do whatever we want to do,” Mendoza’s narrator sniffeed. A haunting, Pink Floyd-tinged interlude depicted her fiance giving up his search, miles away; Chou’s heroine remained defiant through a vindictive, venomous English-language anthem.

A spare, bucolic folk song – the kind the women would sing to remind each other of home – was next on the bil, followed by an anxious but undeterred ballad sung by Mendoza. Kelly Lin’s plaintive Debussy-esque crescendos lit up the number after that.

Flourishes from violin and sax underscored the young woman’s determination to beat the odds and survive, via a variation on the earlier, soul-tnnged revenge anthem. Unlike most of her fellow captives, this woman was able to escape, the piano driving a deliciously redemptive theme. And although her future husband realizes at the end that as she makes is back to her old village, “There’s still someone in there,”most of these women were not so lucky. Good news: Chou plans to release the suite as a studio recording.