New York Music Daily

Love's the Only Engine of Survival

Category: soul music

Guitarslinger Stew Cutler Brings Purist Oldschool Flavor to His New Blues Record

The trouble with jazz guitarists who venture into the blues is that most of them are not very good at it. Too many notes! Marvin Sewell and Andre Matos are rare exceptions – and so is Stew Cutler. His new album The Blues From Another Angle is streaming at Spotify. And it’s not all blues: Cutler tackles oldschool 60s soul and Booker T & the MGs-style soul-funk grooves as well.

Bobby Harden sings the opening track, a cover of Tyrone Davis’ Can I Change My Mind, pianist Tom Wilson taking a gorgeously bittersweet, stiletto solo over the low-key pulse of bassist Booker King and drummer Bill McClellan. Cutler modestly limits himself to spare, muted, purist chordal work.

On the album’s first instrumental, Blews, Cutler plays through a chorus effect for an early Albert Collins evocation, setting up a terse Wilson piano solo. As goofy as parts of that one are, Cutler completely flips the script with Can I Say It Again, a sleek, sophisticated minor-key groove, Wilson’s organ beneath the bandleader’s alternately mournful and fiery lines.

Cutler breaks out his slide for some searing swoops in Get It While You Can, with his wife Mary Jean on the mic. He mashes up some bright Wes Montgomery octaves into a vintage soul theme in Janque, with a blippy Wilson organ solo. Harden takes over the vocals on Plane to a Train over a Booker T-style backdrop, Steve Elson adding jubilant sax.

Cutler follows the vampy Please Mr. Vibration with the wry slide-driven soul tune Say What You Mean. He shifts from brisk to pensive in the vintage George Benson-esque The Passing of RR Moore – a tribute to the great Rudy Ray Moore, a.k.a. Dolomite – Wilson kicking in a long, crescendoing organ solo.

Nightshift Blues, a boomy concert recording, is a slowly unwinding vehicle for Cutler’s frenetically clustering phrases. He goes back to a George Benson vibe to close the record with Shine or Rain, with Wilson – who is the not-so-secret weapon here – adding yet another incisive organ break. Fans of purist soul and blues have a lot to sink their ears into here.

Martina Fiserova Brings Her Individualistic, Soulful Tunesmithing to the Lower East

From the mid-teens until the 2020 lockdown, Czech-born songwriter Martina Fiserova was a familiar presence and a distinctive voice in the New York small club scene. Her tunesmithing is sophisticated, purposeful and defies categorization, with elements of oldschool soul, chamber pop, 90s trip-hop and jazz. She plays electric rather than acoustic guitar, likes short songs and sings in strong English in an unselfconsciously direct, uncluttered voice. Since the lifting of restrictions, she’s back on the live circuit, with an early show tonight, May 22 at 5 PM at the small room at the Rockwood.

Like so many artists whose career was put on ice by the grim events of March 2020 and afterward, Fiserova hasn’t put out an album in awhile. Her most recent release, Shift, came out in 2015 and is still up at Bandcamp: it gives you a good idea of the many angles she comes from. She’s got a great band behind her: Brian Charette on organ and piano, and her fellow Czechs Tomáš Baroš on bass and Dano Šoltis on drums. In addition to guitar, Fiserova plays tone lyre, slate xylophone, bronze metallophone and keys.

She opens with Silver Streams, a slow, catchy, minimalist ballad awash in water imagery, that picks up with an unexpectedly funky pulse fueled by a cheery, blues-infused Charette piano solo. Track two, Crater is a hypnotically clustering number in 12/8: “The sleep is broken, tears are stuck in my throat… unseen forces, the pain spreads like white sheets…”

Song For Brian, a swaying, pensive number contrasts Charette’s strikingly direct piano with Fiserova’s more enigmatic guitar lines. “The sound of a breaking heart is stronger than a storm,” she muses in the intro to Cold, then the band leaps into a brisk, bracing offbeat shuffle, Charette on soul organ

She follows Misunderstanding, a slinky, low-key organ swing tune with Invisible Blood, the band slowly edging their way into waltz time as Charette adds iciness behind Fiserova’s elegant fingerpicking and more of that loaded water imagery.

An unlikely flock of pigeons serve as inspiration for the next track, And Fly!, Fiserova offering plainspoken, inspiring encouragement to leave fear behind. Little did she know when she recorded it how relevant this song would become five years later!

She keeps the fearless theme going in My Wind, with its rhythmic twists and turns. from jazz into oldschool soul and back on the wings of Charette’s organ. He blends organ and blippy Rhodes piano in Chasm, a brisk, twinkling, motorik soul tune that could be the album’s catchiest track. Then Fiserova completely flips the script with Silver Moon, rising from an understatedly dark, squirrelly free jazz intro to a big, soaring anthem. The final cut is the pensive, airily wary Closer. Since the album came out, Fiserova has pursued a more straightforward, guitar-driven sound: she is likely to take the volume up a notch at the Rockwood gig.

Sami Stevens Brings Her Blue-Flame Soul Intensity to the Lower East Side

Sami Stevens was sixteen when she sang the national anthem at Fenway Park. That’s a gig that’s just as difficult to get as it is to pull off. If there’s video evidence, it’s well hidden, which is too bad. It’s a fair bet that she hit it out of the park, sometime around the tail end of the Tito Francona era, in the years when the Red Sox were struggling to sustain the level they’d reached after their 2007 world championship.

More recently, Stevens has become one of the most electrifying singers in New York. She’s the not-so-secret weapon in faux-Italian psychedelic soundtrack band Tredici Bacci, and before the lockdown held down a popular residency at the Parkside in Ditmas Park. She’s back at an old haunt, the small room at the Rockwood in a couple of days, at 8 PM on April 28.

Stevens put out the full-length album And I’m Right in 2017 with her band And the Man I Love, which is still up at Bandcamp. The production is refreshingly oldschool, organic and features a full band with horns, shades of early Lake Street Dive. Stevens’ songwriting isn’t constrained to four minutes or less, and her songs are spiced with thoughtful sax solos and keyboard work (Stevens plays piano; it’s not clear if that’s her on the record). The title track to that one is a good indication of the kind of simmering intensity she channels onstage, a big, wounded, gospel-tinged struggler’s anthem in 6/8 time.

Stevens works a slinky/slashing dichotomy in Over and Over, another catchy, expansive ballad. She takes a more breathily expressive approach to Baby Blue, a retro Bill Withers-style tune, then follows a simmering, gospel-fueled upward trajectory in Where Will I Find My Best Friend. Then she picks up the pace with A Child They Said Was Mine, a parable of urban disquiet that rings just as true now

There’s also the catchy, steady self-empowerment strut Learn to Love, with its fluttery horns and starry keys; She Is God, a spine-tingling, impassioned shout-out to everyday female determination; and a slightly truncated single version of the title cut. If you missed this the first time around, it’s one of the most imaginative, purist albums of soul music released in the past several years.

Stevens’ most recent release is a short album, Make Your Mind, which she put out in the fall of 2020 and is also up at Bandcamp. In general, it’s more low-key, trippy and neosoul-oriented.

Sunday Singles – A Bombshell and a Movie This Time

In times like these, everybody is being called on to think outside the box, this blog included. That’s why today’s list of brief items includes a hilarious short film, a sobering little news bulletin and a schoolgirl speaking truth to power. As usual, click on artist or author names for their webpages, click on titles for audio or video.

Let’s start with the bombshell, which some of you have undoubtedly seen by now since Project Veritas is the #1 most-watched channel on Telegram. Until now, we haven’t seen a lot of big pharma whistleblowers, but this leaked Zoom call from the bowels of AstraZeneca on December 3,. 2020 is damning as hell. In the context of pitching a monoclonal antibody product as a potential Covid treatment, CEO Pascal Soriot cops to the fact that “There are millions of people in the world that will need a protection that cannot be coming from a vaccine.” Kaboom. Nuremberg 2.0, here we come.

Now a break for music with one of this blog’s alltime favorites: Everything But the Girl doing Little Hitler, a soaring, soulful anthem from their lavishly orchestrated 1986 album Baby the Stars Shine Bright Tonight.

Just to be clear, EBTG singer Tracey Thorn is being sarcastic when she sings “Every woman loves a fascist.” The thirteen-year-old Australian girl in this anonymous Rumble video clearly doesn’t, as she elegantly and articulately rips Klaus Schwab a new one. Who says all the kids today are sheeple!

For practically two years now, Dr. Pam Popper – author of the very first plandemic expose, COVID Operation and founder of Make Americans Free Again – has been putting out an endless series of easily digestible short videos on the news of the day. This one is not meant to scare but to inform. As she explains, there’s a “smart” health card currently being developed by a sinister coalition including Microsoft, Salesforce.com and, surprisingly, the Mayo Clinic. To cut to the chase, it’s a platform for a communist Chinese-style social credit scheme, scheduled to be deployed on a state-by-state basis. As of today, Arizona, Nevada and Utah are already on board, with West Virginia, Oklahoma and South Carolina close behind…unless, of course, people refuse to comply.. Deets in brief at Popper’s must-watch Rumble channel.

OK, now that we’ve gotten most all of the serious stuff out of the way, here’s a very funny short film. In just under thirty minutes, Doc Tracy is a venomously amusing mashup (and sometimes a parody) of The Matrix, Project Veritas and film noir in general. Listen as none other than Dr. Simone Gold chews the scenery in her role as a quasi-Switch! Watch as our hero tracks down the real-life Kristina Lawson, head of the California Medical Board, who as it turns out isn’t even a doctor! You can’t make this stuff up.

Melissa Gordon Brings Her Catchy Purist Retro Rock Tunesmithing Back to a Familiar Haunt

Back in 2017, this blog picked Melissa & the Mannequins as the best new rock band in New York. With frontwoman Melissa Gordon’s calm, uncluttered vocals and purist retro 80s janglerock tunesmithing, the future looked bright. Since then, the Mannequins seem to have left the store window, but Gordon has soldiered on as a solo performer and bandleader. If catchy tunesmithing and big redemptive choruses are your thing, Gordon’s songs will hit the spot. She’s returning to a familiar haunt, the small room at the Rockwood on April 6 at 8 PM. It’s a pass-the-bucket situation.

From the low-key, plainspoken acoustic sketches on her Soundcloud page, it’s clear she hasn’t been idle since the arts in this city were put on ice by the 2020 totalitarian takeover. But her magnum opus so far is the 2017 Mannequins album Mtns​/​Plane​/​Sky, which is still up at Bandcamp.

Beyond her songwriting, Gordon’s biggest drawing card is her nimble guitar work, flinging one catchy riff or flurry of chordlets into the mix. The album opens with Can’t Let Go, a gorgeous intertwine of chiming guitar textures over a low-key backbeat from drummer Oskar Hagghdal, Gordon and guitarist Steve Flakus hit a wry twin-lead break that they send wafting off in a a flangey fog. Then they take a turn into slinky, retro soul-infused funk with All the Time, eventually rising to a cheery, punchy peak over a sleek organ backdrop.

Bliss is a crunchy powerpop tune with all kinds of clever touches, from bittersweet ELO keys to big Bowie-esque flares.. The band shift from funky verse to shiny, swooshy chorus and back in the the next number, Breathe, then tale a memorably moody detour into Lynchian soul balladry with Intruder

Listen, a brisk, gorgeously angst-fueled 6/8 soul tune bristling with layers and layers of guitar, is the genuine classic here, and a high point of the band’s live show. Slip Away is another real gem, with the album’s catchiest chorus: the recorded version reveals the song’s soul roots. The last track is Night in the Park, the synthiest, new wavey-est tune here.

One beef about this album: Gordon is a fine singer, and the places where her vocals were autotuned instantly date this music to a time when the entertainment-industrial complex was trying to wean people off human artistry and replace it with computers. Historians looking back at the early 21st century will shudder at how successful that meme turned out to be.

Pianist Rachel Z Brings a Great Lineup to Smalls Tonight

We are in the most bizarre time for live music in New York history. At this point, a small handful of jazz clubs are leading the way back to normalcy, catering to all New Yorkers without apartheid restrictions. Among the herd of elephants in the room is the brain drain out of town, where all but the most obstinate or destitute among us got the hell out within weeks of the March 2020 totalitarian takeover. So there are all kinds of unexpected faces popping up where they might not have before the lockdown.

One intriguing show that might not have taken place at Smalls in 2019 is happening there tonight, April 2, where pianist Rachel Z and her band Orbits 4 wrap up their two-night stand with sets at 7:30 and around 9 PM. It’s a great lineup, with Steve Wilson on alto sax, Jonathan Toscano on bass and Ben Perowsky on drums; cover is $25 cash at the door

The last time anybody from this blog was in the house at a Rachel Z show was eons ago, at a Winter Jazzfest afternoon in the Carnegie Hill area, where despite the early hour she and her Trio of Oz treated the crowd to a thoughtfully energetic set whose high point was a biting instrumental cover of the Police’s King of Pain.

If you’re thinking of checking out the Smalls gig, one album that might offer a hint of what they’ll be up to is bassist Scott Petito’s 2018 release Rainbow Gravity – streaming at Bandcamp – which features Rachel Z along with a rotating cast of talent, mostly from the jazz world.

Petito tends to favor a a dry, blippy, slightly oscillating tone, plays with a lot of guitar voicings and has a flair for the cinematic. A lot of this material looks straight to about forty years ago. Case in point: the album’s opening track, Sly-Fi. which has an easygoing, period-perfect early 80s Crusaders soul/funk vibe. David Spinozza’s guitar flares in sync with Bob Mintzer’s tenor sax over David Sancious’ alternately light-fingered and atmospheric keys, with a cheery sax solo at the center.

That template sets the stage for much of the rest of the record. On The Sequence of Events, Rachel Z adds welcome gravitas with her spare, thoughtfully incisive piano, as the bandleader takes a snappy solo way up the fretboard. Balsamic Reduction is an echoey Fender Rhodes soul song without words set to a straight-up clave beat, livened with• Mike Mainieri’s vibraphone and Spinozza’s chipper flamenco/blues solo. The group revisit a similar vibe – pun intended – a little later, in the album’s title track

The Sanguine Penguin is a brisk postbop swing jazz tune, Petito doubling the bright riffage from Mintzer and trumpeter Chris Pasin over Peter Erskine’s subtle drum accents, a cleverly leapfrogging piano solo at the center. Masika is both poignant and funny, Petito playing guitar lines through a flange and a sitar pedal over an otherwise unexpectedly brooding, west African tinged theme.

He and drummer Jack DeJohnette team up to build suspense in Dark Pools, an ominous soundscape. The group go back to a rather dark take on Hollywood Hills boudoir funk with Helicon, then work a pleasantly sleepy, twinkling groove in Lawns. Petito winds up the record with a gamelanesque duo with DeJohnette.

Fun fact: the album title is a concept from quantum physics which posits that the universe is more the result of a big drift rather than a big bang. The corollary is that its ever-increasing expanse may be more hospitable to life than we previously thought.

Individualistic Soul Band Brandi & the Alexanders Make a Welcome Return to the New York Stage

For the last few years prior to the lockdown, Brandi & the Alexanders were one of the most musically interesting retro soul bands playing around New York. Frontwoman Brandi Thompson is more about subtlety than wounded wail and the group behind her – guitarist Nick Fokas, bassist Eric Wendell, keyboardist Ethan Simon and drummer Eric Gottlieb – punch in with a drive that’s closer to classic 70s sounds and four-on-the-floor rock than hip-hop. In the studio, they keep their songs on the short side and have a great sense of humor. The tunesmitbing is strong: the songs are catchy without falling back on cliches. And Thompson doesn’t autotune her voice either!

They’ve put out a couple of records: the most recent one is How Do You Like It, which came out in 2018 and is streaming at youtube. The band are making a return to a familiar stage, the big room at the Rockwood – which has recently reopened without restrictions – on March 25 at 8:30 PM. Cover is $10.

The album opens with the title cut, a kiss-off anthem that’s a mixture of slinky psychedelic soul and hard funk, Thompson picking up with a gritty vindictiveness at the end. The second track, Higher is a catchy, tightly pulsing, harder-rocking take on late 60s Motown.

I’m in Love is funkier, with blippy electric piano and a little gospel bridge. The band slow things down with Jealousy, a simmering piano ballad in 6/8 time built around an icy chorus-box guitar riff and swirly organ. After that there’s a surprise, a slow, swaying 90s G-funk inspired cover of Black Sabbath’s Paranoid that’s just plain hilarious

They pick up the pace with Running Around, an brisk update on a familiar minor-key soul-blues theme from the 60s. “I’m so sick of these goddamn love songs,” Thompson scowls in the next number, a trip-hop strut with growling guitars and some amusing voiceovers.

The album’s hardest-rocking song is Drama Queen: just when you think the band are going to expand on the guitar multitracks, or launch into a long solo, they end it cold. Likewise, they wrap up Pulling Me Down, a catchy mix of airy keys and wah-wah guitar grit, in under three minutes.

“Luck ain’t got nothing to do with it,” Thompson asserts cynically in Lucky as the band rise from a slow wah-wah groove to a surreal, squalling sax break and a big coda. She reaches for extra venom in Shapeshifter, a vindictive, imaginatively orchestrated blues tune about a real femme fatale. The band wind up the album with Bad Love, a slow, gospel-tinged 6/8 ballad, Thompson working the dynamics for all they’re worth and finally kicking out the jams. Good to see these guys still together and playing at a time when so many others have been scattered across the country – or across town.

Eclectic Soul, Jazz and Funk Tunesmithing From Saxophonist Alison Shearer

Alto saxophonist Alison Shearer comes out of a jazz background but also writes genre-busting songs that bridge the worlds of soul, psychedelia and funk. Her debut album View From Above is streaming at Bandcamp. Her attack is nimble, purposeful, and her songs tend to be on the bright side. Shearer’s not-so-secret weapon here is keyboardist Kevin Bernstein, who fleshes out the material with layers of organ, Bernie Worrell-ish synth patches, electric and acoustic piano.

The first track is On Awakening, a cheery, kinetically loopy interweave of Shearer’s dancing sax and Marty Kenney’s blippy bass over Bernstein’s woozy P-Funk-ish keyboard layers, drummer Horace Phillips providing a solid footing. Shearer builds her mistily propulsive solo to a triumphantly emphatic series of closing riffs

Celestial has brightly circling sax hooks over a well-worn singer-songwriter progression that Bernstein quickly expands with his pointillistic piano, shreddy guitar voicings on the synth kicking off a cheery, singalong Shearer solo. The next tune, Cycles is a lithely dancing Hollywood Hills boudoir soul tune balanced with some neat triangulations between electric piano, sax and Wayne Tucker’s trumpet

Miranda Joan sings Breathe Again, a crescendoing, occasionally gospel-tinged soul-jazz ballad reflecting a hope to emerge into renewed freedom and optimism.

Shearer uses the vampy. swaying Toni’s Tune as a launching pad for catchy, misty soloing, bookeneded around a doublespeed bridge. “Art is dangerous,” a voiceover reminds, “Because dictators, and people in office, and people who want to control and deceive know exactly the people who will disturb their planning.” Take that, Klaus Schwab!

Tucker returns for tightly syncopated. bittersweet harmonies in Three Flights Up, anchored by Bernstein’s twinkling, resonant Rhodes. Jonathan Hoard, Vuyo Sotashe and Chauncey Matthews interchange on vocals in Big Kids; Bernstein plays somber neoromantic piano and Susan Mandel provides shivery cello behind a sobering sample of Martin Luther King commenting on police brutality.

Hattie Simon’s cut-and-pasted vocals float over a gentle, wistful, spare soul backdrop in Purple Flowers. The best song on the album is Dawn to Dusk, Shearer shifting from a stark, loopy Ethiopiques theme to swirly psych-funk and back. She winds up the album with Gentle Traveler, a warmly catchy song without words: the contrast between carefree sax and pensive cello is a neat touch.

Shearer doesn’t have any unrestricted gigs coming up, but Tucker is leading a quintet at Smalls tonight, March 17 at 7:30 PM. The trumpeter has a fiery side but is just as much at home in balmy Afrobeat-flavored sounds, and he likes to croon. The club is open again with no restrictions; cover is $25 at the door.

Eclectic, Imaginatively Arranged Soul Stylings From Lunar Noon

On her new album Symbolic Creature – streaming at Bandcamp – multi-keyboardist/songwriter Michelle Zheng a.k.a. Lunar Noon contemplates the empowerment that the act of questioning triggers, and how we assign meaning to otherwise completely random objects and events. The takeaway, she seems to say, is up to us.

Many but not all of the tracks could be classified as soul music. Zheng likes textures, a mix of the organic and the icily techy, plus layers of vocals, recorded over the web with a rotating cast of players in the summer of 2021. She cites Susanne Sundfor as a major influence, reflected by the wide range of styles covered here. Flickers of Chinese folk music sometimes bubble to the surface, whether melodically or in the choice of instrumentation. Some of the song titles reflect a Japan trip Zheng took which seems to have ended badly.

In the album’s brief opening number, Rabbits, as she sees them, are gospel creatures, in a slow waltz awash in strings The second track is Ginkgo, a trip-hop number with stark cello, koto, and operatic backing vocals, a more ornate take on what Fiona Apple was doing in the mid-zeros.

Blippy keys contrast with washes and pulses of sound in track three, Peregrine; then, picturesque percussion and harp percolate through The Rain, which becomes more of a soul-infused rain dance.

Anywhere, a jaunty soul strut, has artfully assembled layers of starry electronic keys. Provenance has an elegant sweep beneath Zheng’s achingly soaring vocals; Ash gets more of a robotic, psychedelic atmosphere.

Cold cyborg vocals contrast with the lushness of Suspension. Zheng shifts gears with Meteor, its spare, shuffling beat anchoring a tune that hints at warmly enveloping soul balladry. The same spareness persists in Alchemist, up to a catchy, determined lead vocal and a big, driving piano solo: it’s the album’s most forceful song.

Another strong track is Yellow House, a chamber-pop waltz with classically-inspired piano. The best and catchiest song is Daylight, a big art-rock anthem where Zheng switches between lingering bittersweetness and an energetic sway. Hypnotic cell-like piano riffs permeate the closing cut, Gold, which brings to mind early My Brighest Diamond. It will be interesting to see which of these many directions Zheng decides to follow in the coming months or years.

Some of the Most Outside-the-Box Sounds in Heavy Rock from the Neptune Power Federation

Australian band the Neptune Power Federation are one of the most original bands around. Just the idea of AC/DC with a woman out front is pretty cool (John Sharples’ New York AC/DC cover project Big Balls, with Anna Copa Cabanna on vocals is an obvious reference point). But as much as the Neptune Power Federation raise their lighters at the altar of Angus Young, they have all kinds of other influences. Their new album Le Demon De L’Amour is streaming at Bandcamp. The concept, heavy metal songs about love, is nothing new – except that these aren’t cheesy hair metal ballads. And they’re more acidic than saccharine.

The first one is Weeping on the Moon, with an intro that reminds of Pink Floyd’s Run Like Hell into a brisk stomp straight out of classic-era Highway to Hell AC/DC. Frontwoman Screaming Loz Sutch brings a little 60s girl-group-via-new-wave to the vocals. Bassist Jaytanic Ritual gets to cut loose on the long outro along with guitarists Search and DesTroy and Inverted CruciFox. Behind the kit – drum roll – is River Sticks, #bestdrummernameever.

Musically, the AC/DC is front and center in My Precious One, with a little Sabbath Paranoid edge, but it’s the lead singer’s unselfconscious angst that hits you upside the head: no cliches in that woman’s voice.

Baby You’re Mine is an unexpected detour into heavy wah-wah funk, with blippy clavinova and an organ swirling in the background. Loz reaches to the top of her wail in Loving You Is Killing Me, a strange, psychedelic mashup of AC/DC, early Santana and 80s metal with a shockingly delicate acoustic interlude before the earth-shaking charge out

The band go back to improbably successful new wave/metal cross-pollination in Stay With Thee. They follow that with Emmaline, a snarling riff-rock tune in an Electric Citizen vein with lush layers of backing vocals and a surreal outer-space interlude.

From the sarcastic intro, to the demolition right afterward, the heavy soul tune Madly in Love is the funniest track on the album. They close with We Beasts of the Night, a wistful acoustic twelve-string intro ceding to a straight-up powerpop anthem straight out of CBGB, 1979. It takes big balls to make music as defiantly individualistic as this – let alone in Australia at any time since March of 2020.