New York Music Daily

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Tag: accordion music

It’s a Great Summer for Middle Eastern Music in New York

While much of the New York City parks system is on the highway to privatized hell – both Central Park Summerstage and the Prospect Park Bandshell series are selling ticketed seats to free concerts now – we haven’t yet reached the point where free summer concerts here have been whitewashed and yuppified to the point of irrelevance. Meanwhile, serendipitously, there have been some new publicly accessible concert series popping up, keeping the hallowed tradition of free summer concerts here alive.

One public space that’s been flying more or less under the radar until recently is Bryant Park. It wouldn’t be fair to let the month go by without mentioning the transcendent performance by slinky Middle Eastern ensemble the Bil Afrah Project, who opened the final night of this year’s Accordions Around the World festival there. Obviously, it would have been fun to stick around for the whole night, which ended with a wall-to-wall sea of revelers celebrating Colombian Independence Day.

The park’s overseers had the good sense to put the festival in the hands of tireless, intrepid impresario Ariana Hellerman (publisher of the irreplaceable Ariana’s List of free summer events). Over the course of the month, she drew from her roster of two hundred of New York’s finest accordionists (yes, there are that many) for a series of performances that reinforced the instrument’s portability across cultures, a powerful if compact vehicle for musical cross-pollination. 

In barely a half hour onstage, the Bil Afrah Project – who dedicate themselves to recreating Ziad Rahbani’s iconic 1975 Bil Afrah suite of reinvented Lebanese and Egyptian love and love-gone-wrong ballads- raised the bar for the rest of the evening dauntingly high. Rahbani has since gone on to be called the Lebanese Bob Dylan, although many others, none of whom sound anything like the American Nobel Laureate, have been given that label. Rahbani – son of famous chanteuse Fairouz and songwriter Assi Rahbani – was nineteen when he pulled a band together to record it. The suite doesn’t have much of the acerbically fearless political sensibility that characterizes his later work: its populist message is much subtler, grounded in its achingly wistful, sometimes melancholic, sometimes bucolic themes.

Group members, notably oudist Brian Prunka, accordionist Simon Moushabeck, ney flutist Bridget Robbins and violinist Sami Abu Shumays took turns playing plaintive taqsims as segues between songs. The most incisive, intense of these was from buzuq player Josh Farrar, who remained very prominent in the mix. John Murchison, a connoisseur of Middle Eastern bass, made his debut concert on kanun a memorable one as well. And riq tambourinist Michel Merhej Baklouk, who played on the original album, was present and added an almost defiantly crescendoing solo toward the end of the suite as the edgy chromatics, uneasy microtonal modes and graceful sweep of the music rose and fell over the pulse of Sprocket Royer’s bass and Jeremy Smith’s darbouka. Then emcee Rachelle Garniez took the stage and treated the crowd to some similarly incisive banter and her own noir-tinged material.

The performances on the festival’s next-to-last night fit in perfectly with its eclectic sensibility as well. Over the course of the early part of the evening, Erica Mancini played jaunty oldtimey swing, then made noir mambo out of the old standard St. Louis Blues. Shoko Nagai began with airy, austere Japanese folk themes and then went deep into the dark, kinetic chromatics of the klezmer music she loves so much.

Will Holshouser, best known for his exhilarating speed and high-voltage solos, flipped the script with his own thoughtful, methodically shifting originals, occasionally alluding to Indian modes: as a pioneer of the pastoral jazz revival, he deserves far more credit than he’s been given. And a beautiful blue-eyed blonde in the crowd called out Eduardo de Carvalho for the masculinity of his playing. That’s not to say that the other performances weren’t strong, but there was plenty of muscle in his confident, impassioned, unselfconsciously soulful, rustic runs through a mini-set of forro and tango.

Circling back to the Middle Eastern theme, there are a couple of upcoming shows that shouldn’t be missed. On July 29 at 8 at the Lynch Theatre at 524 W 59th St., haunting Lebanese oud-playing brothers the Trio Joubran  perform a homage to their late collaborator, the incendiary Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish as part of this year’s Lincoln Center Festival; $30 tix are still available. And on August 10 at 10 PM, legendary, ageless Armenian-American jazz reedman Souren Baronian leads his amazing band at Barbes.

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An Insider Look at This Year’s Amazing Accordion Festival at Bryant Park

The annual accordion festival at Bryant Park continues with a couple of amazing shows tomorrow, July 19 at 6 PM and then the grand finale, which starts at 5 on Friday the 21st with the haunting Lebanese sounds of the Bil Afrah Project ,with Gregorio Uribe headlining and leading a wild celebration of Colombian Independence Day at 9 PM.

If you’ve spent any time at the festival over the past couple of weeks, you may have noticed a tall blonde woman calmly making her way across the park, taking lots of pictures and getting lots of hugs from accordionists. She always seems to have a Mona Lisa smile on her face. Then again, you’d be smiling too, if you ran an accordion festival.

That irrepressible impresario is Ariana Hellerman, who’s also the publisher of the indispensable Ariana’s List of free summer concerts and events all over New York. Backstage Sunday night at the Innov Gnawa show on the Upper West Side, Hellerman shared some history and some secrets:

New York Music Daily: First, I just want to say thanks for finding so much sonic bliss, and sharing it with us. I think your festival should be a yearlong event. Any hope for making it longer this year?

Ariana Hellerman: I have ideas, but nothing is set in stone – yet. Stay tuned!

But in general, my work is around making arts accessible to people and I get most pleasure from producing in public space – parks, plazas, etcetera. Because of winter weather, it becomes more difficult to work in these places. I’m beginning to think about public spaces that exist indoors. If anyone has ideas, I’m always open.

NYMD: How do you find these people? Other than googling “accordionist NYC”?

AH: I have a few sources. Before I was invited to help design this series, Bryant Park had lone accordionists strolling around the park once a week. The Park had about fifteen people on their roster. When I came on board with the “Accordions Around the World” idea – and with the hopes of making the series more of a destination for the park -, I brainstormed all the local accordionists I knew in New York. Because my interest is mainly music from around the world, I tried to think of all the bands I knew who had accordion – and there were quite a few. In addition, I racked the brains of others and scanned the webpages of some of my favorite venues and festivals – Barbes in Brooklyn and the annual Balkan music festival, Golden Fest were amongst the lot.

In 2013, the first year of this incarnation of the series, I was able to find thirty additional accordionists. I continue to do this type of research regularly so that we can be more inclusive of new styles and musicians. But because the series is becoming more of a destination, many people have begun to reach out to me. Over the last five editions, my list has grown to 470 accordionists!

NYMD: Does you own personal taste in accordion music include tango, cumbia, klezmer, Middle Eastern, tarantella, Celtic, cajun and jazz?

AH: Yes. While I like some genres more than others, my priority is sharing culture. Even if my ears don’t agree with the sound, I continue to be inclusive because this is “Accordions Around the World” and we want as many styles of music represented in the series.

NYMD: I always find myself having to explain to people why I think the accordion is one of the three coolest instruments in the world – the oud and the church organ being the other two. Do you find yourself having to do the same sort of thing? What do you tell people?

AH: When I tell people I curate an accordion festival, I’m usually met with a “Really????,” followed by a surprised or disgusted look, and then a sheepish giggle. My usual spiel in response is: “You know, when Americans usually think of the accordion, they think of polka, Lawrence Welk, and yesteryear kitsch. But, in many parts of the world, it’s one of the most important instruments to convey the sound of the region. And in New York, we are lucky to have access to many of these cultures.” And then I outline the cultures.

I also think the accordion is cool because it’s an instrument of immigration, migration, and connections. You can hear similar sounds in Cajun music – which traveled from Quebec to Louisiana with obvious French influence prior – and forró from the northeast of Brazil. Many immigrants from all over Europe – Italian, German, Jewish, Polish, etcetera – came to the US in the late 19th/early 20th century and brought their music forms with them. This continues today with more recent immigrant communities such as Colombia, the Dominican Republic, and Mexico. Accordion usually sparks conversation and each week in the park, I almost always hear “You know, my grandfather/grandmother/father/mother/aunt/uncle played the accordion.” I like that many people of very different backgrounds have a personal connection to the instrument.

NYMD: Can you give us a capsule history of the Bryant Park Accordion Festival? How did it start? You’ve been doing it for four years now….

AH: Dan Biederman, the president of Bryant Park, took a trip to France and stumbled upon an accordionist in a park and was enchanted. Since Bryant Park has Parisian elements, the experience made him want to create a similar, serendipitous experience. For a few summers, a accordionist would stroll around for a few hours. It was nice, but people weren’t coming to chase after the lone musician.

I have a blog, arianaslist.com, where I share free cultural events in New York. Many people in the field read the blog since I write about their events and because I provide ideas on how to make the arts more accessible to audiences. In spring of 2013, Ethan Lercher, the executive producer of Bryant Park Presents, their cultural arm, contacted me. He had read one of my blog posts that described my experience at the Festival Vallenato in Valledupar, Colombia. I had just come back from living in Colombia and had attended a festival of Vallenato music, a Colombian genre that focuses on the accordion. He asked, “what do you know about accordion?” He wanted to make the accordion more prominent in the Park’s programming. My response was, “I don’t know that much but what fascinates me about the instrument is how it’s played in so many cultures.” From there, we began to explore the idea of “Accordions Around the World.”

NYMD: Are you happy with how the festival has gone this year, with rescheduling and all?

AH: It’s been wonderful. This is the first season that we’ve had our “Accordion Picnic” format for the entirety of the series. In the past, the audience and passer-bys were invited to stroll around to see accordionists play two-hour sets in different pockets of the park. This year, the accordionists come to the audiences: each accordionist plays a 15 minute set before another comes in. This way, if an audience member sets up shop in one location, they will hear eight styles of music over the two hour span. There are also six stations around the park so people can “chase” the music or artist they would like to hear.

Since we’re eager to provide a good experience for audience members, Bryant Park provides blankets to borrow, encourages picnics, and even sells alcoholic beverages that can be consumed on the lawn. It’s lovely and we’ve noticed an uptick in attendance.

NYMD: Yeah, I should say. Another thing I want to mention is that there’s no sonic competition with shrieking alarms on city buses. And it’s also a lot easier now that you don’t have to chase the accordionist.

AH: With this format, the artists are also able to engage with the other accordionists, and see other styles of music on the accordion. My secret hope is that I’m sparking relationships between accordionists ,and new, exciting projects will come from this!

NYMD: What highlights do you have to share? I’ve seen so many great acts – Rachelle Garniez, Simon Moushabeck ,Guillermo Vaisman,,Melissa Elledge , so many others. Who have you seen that really floored you this year?

AH: We have incredible artists in the series. I can’t choose one! They’re all near and dear to my heart. In this moment, the Brazilian artists in this series really stand out: I love Felipe Hostins who is from Santa Catarina, Brazil. He grew up playing polkas, which was the main accordion music in his hometown in the south of Brazil. Today he is helping to lead the forró movement in New York. Vitor Gonçalves has been playing choro, an instrumental genre which originated in 19th century Rio de Janeiro, his hometown. As a trained jazz musician, he also incorporates a lot jazz into his sets. Eduardo de Carvalho lives in Newark and has mainly played restaurant gigs to date. He is ready for a bigger stage with his incredibly strong sertanejo and forro. Rob Curto grew up in a Sicilian family but spent many years living in Brazil. Today he shares his blend of bluegrass and forró with us. These four players are so incredibly strong. But again, we have so many incredible artists in these series. If we had time, I would tell you about each and every one!

NYMD: Can I ask you, you’re a pianist. Why aren’t you an accordionist, you obviously love the instrument so much…and it’s a lot easier to take an accordion with you when you move. I realize also that this isn’t a fair question, you could ask me the same thing and I wouldn’t have a really good answer for you…

AH: Accordion never even seemed to be an option while I was studying classical piano. And now I’m a music appreciator more than a musician. Though because I know so many accordionists, it has crossed my mind to take up lessons and to become (or more likely, fail at becoming) the singer-songwriter-rockstar I am in my dreams. 

NYMD: You lived in Colombia and Argentina. To what degree did that influence your accordion fixation?

AH: Obviously living in Colombia became the inspiration for this series, as you know. And while I knew tango and the bandoneón – the free reed instrument played for tango – before living in Argentina, I was introduced to chamamé, a folk music genre from northeast Argentina, while living there. It is a fusion of Guaraní  – the indigenous population from this part of the world –  Spanish, German, Polish, and Ukrainian music. There were a lot of Eastern European immigrants to this region in the early 20th century. I’m thrilled that we have our first chamamé artist, Guillermo Vaisman in the series this season.

NYMD: Do you have a desert island accordion song? Or album? Or accordion song you’d want somebody to play at your wedding?

AH: No. Though I just stumbled upon a short clip I recorded of Felipe Hostins from last week’s edition and I’ve been listening to it on loop. He says its his original composition called “Minh’alma” (My Soul) and it’s chamamé – our artists are obviously inspired by all forms of music! It’s so good.

While I love accordion and I can identify when the music is really good, for me, this is about sharing culture with the people of New York. My work is all about creating live performance opportunities for artists and audiences alike. I get joy from seeing these connections made and the joy it brings others.

NYMD: What’s your alltime favorite accordion concert?

AH: Our Accordions Around the World Festival is always a highlight, obviously. But outside of the performances I curate… I always love Lila Downs and we’re lucky to have her accordionist, George Saenz in our series!

NYMD: Just saw her at Prospect Park at the end of last month. Amazing. Nice work getting him!

AH: Another experience that comes to mind – when I was in Argentina, one of my colleagues connected me to Chango Spasiuk, who is one of the most famous musicians down there, who is known for chamamé. He picked me up in a limo, along with his bandmates, and I got to watch his whole show from backstage. The experience was pretty cool!

NYMD: Tell me about closing night on the 21st, this Friday.Is this a bunch of debuts? Has the Bil Afrah project ever played anywhere elase before? How about Peter Stan’s new band? It’s gonna be amazing!

AH: The Bil Afrah Project has performed before but not in a setting that can yield this large of an audience – in past years, we’ve had about four thousand people. It’s very exciting. We’ve put the word out to the Lebanese and Arab community and we hope they will come out. Ziad Rahbani is one of the most important and known composers from the Arab World, son of the famous Fairuz.

Peter Stan’s Zlatni Balkan Zvuk is brand new and will be debuting at the Festival. In talking with Peter – of Slavic Soul Party fame – I asked him if he ever played traditional Serbian music since SSP is more of a jazz/funk Balkan brass group. He told me he didn’t think there would be a market for it. After he shared more information and shared examples of Balkan wedding music, I chose to disagree! All of the musicians in this group are from the Balkans  – including Peter’s son who is also an accordionist! – and have been rehearsing, rehearsing, rehearsing. I’m really excited to welcome them, and was happy to provide the opportunity to Peter to be a bandleader for the first time. Given how amazing Peter is, I know this is just the beginning for them. 

The Bryant Park Accordion Festival – Pure Sonic Bliss

Wednesday night, the four corners of Bryant Park were awash in the blissful, plaintive, bittersweet and sometimes boisterously pulsing tones of many of New York’s most captivating accordionists. Booked by Ariana Hellerman, publisher of the irreplaceable free events and concert guide Ariana’s List – a primary source for a lot of what you find on the monthly NYC concert calendar here – opening night of this year’s Bryant Park Accordion Festival featured music from France, Russia, Colombia, Ireland, Brazil, many other countries and all over the US as well. Hellerman’s setup – a single accordionist or small group situated in every corner of the park, as well as over by the fountain on the west side, works out perfectly since each act is far enough away from the others to ensure that there’s no sonic competition.

Performances are staggered, Golden Fest style, with brief fifteen minute sets and virtually no time lost between acts. Some of the accordionists rotate, so that you can catch more of them if fifteen minutes isn’t enough for you  – seriously, is fifteen minutes of accordion music ever enough?

A tour of the festival’s first hour was as rapturously good as expected. It was tempting to pull up a seat in the shade to be serenaded by the Wisterians’ poignant French musettes, or the great Ismail Butera’s edgy, supersonic take on Middle Eastern and Mediterranean sounds, or Phil Passantino‘s wildly spiraling Cajun songs. But just like Golden Fest, it’s like being a kid in a candy store here, a great way to discover dozens of new artists. For starters, Mindra Sahadeo played calmly lustrousIndian carnatic music, singing in a sonorous baritone and accompanied by his mom on mridangam, another woman to his right adding vocals. He was a ringer, considering that he was playing harmonium (there were also a couple of others on the bill playing the concertina).

Next, in the northeast corner, the charismatic Alan Morrow entertained the crowd. Is there anything this guy can’t play? Segueing breathlessly between styles, he fired off bits and pieces of songs across pretty much every conceivable genre. About a minute after Dave Brubeck, we got James Brown: “Say it loud, I’m a New Yorker and I’m proud,” Morrow grinned, and the audience agreed. By then he’d already made his way through classical, ragtime, jazz, hints of klezmer and finally the longest number of his set, the Moody Blues’ Nights in White Satin, which turned out perfect for the accordion – and for a second seemed that he was going to do the whole album version, complete with hazy string-and-poetry interlude.

The highlight of the hour – at least from this perspective – turned out to be Guillermo Vaisman, who played a tantalizingly brief set of chamame tunes. It’s a popular folk style that’s common on the Uruguay-Brazil border, like tango but less classically-tinged, or a more lively counterpart to candombe. And it’s hard to find in New York. Vaisman’s elegance and dynamics throughout a mix of waltzes and more upbeat material put him on the map as someone who would be even more enjoyable to see stretching out with a longer set.

The festival continues for the next two Wednesdays, starting at 6 PM. The July 5 show features, among others, the haunting and amazingly eclectic Melissa Elledge, playful avant garde jazz and Romany accordionist Shoko Nagai, and Jordan Shapiro, better known as the organist in Choban Elektrik, the Balkan Doors. Closing night is Friday, July 21 at 8, hosted by the mesmerizing Rachelle Garniez, featuring Middle Eastern, Brazilian and Colombian music, to name just three styles. And it’s free.      

Charan-Po-Rantan’s Accordion Intensity Stuns the Crowd at Joe’s Pub

Monday night at Joe’s Pub, any perception that Japanese sister duo Charan-Po-Rantan were merely cute, adorable, kooky real-life anime characters vanished the second that accordionist Koharu cut loose a vast, deep river of minor-key melody. Dressed in almost-but-not-quite-matching pastel cartoon pastiche outfits and matching headpieces, she and her singer sister Momo delivered a dynamic and often ferocious set of mostly original Romany and klezmer songs…in Japanese. But their charisma and tunesmithing transcended any linguistic limitation. It’s a fair guess that less than half the crowd spoke that language, or Romanes for that matter.

Momo spent the entirety of the show with a pretty hefty stuffed pig under her arm. Was it actually attached to her outfit? As it turned out, no, but that didn’t become clear until more than halfway through the two’s tantalizingly brief hour onstage. The show started beguilingly but slowly, the sisters seemingly taking their time on getting a handle on how to approach this refreshingly multicultural, demographically diverse downtown New York audience. Quickly, the energy went to redline when they brought up Alicia Svigals for an absolutely feral rip through a familiar Romany folk dance number (it wasn’t Djelem Djelem, but if you’re a fan of Balkan music, you’ve definitely heard it). Svigals, a founding member of the Klezmatics, possessed with chops as spine-tingling as they are elegant, seized the opportunity to revel in volley after volley of microtones and scrapes and glissandos. She would return late in the set for a Charan-Po-Rantan original that was only slightly less intense.

The two built momentum as the show went on, then dipped to what ironically might have been its high point, a gorgeously bittersweet, waltzing lament. Momo briefly left the stage to Koharu, who took her time building a darkly bouncy loopmusic instrumental, eventually capping it off with wistful vocalese over a playfullly offcenter beat. Although the duo’s originals were the most ornate and rawly exhilarating of the material in the set, they also played a handful of covers. A popular video game theme and variations drew chuckles from the crowd, as did a cover of the old 50s hit Sukiyaki. The only miss was a cheesy Neil Diamond song that’s been done before as J-pop – and only about half the crowd seemed to recognize it.

At the end of the set, Momo finally left the stage with what seemed to be a fifty-foot mic cable and went into the crowd, teasing the guys, standing on chairs and holding the audience rapt with her powerful, melismatic delivery. Where Koharu gave everybody chills with her rapidfire rivulets and stormy cloudbanks, her sister proved every bit as powerful with a similarly expansive range from the very top to the darkest lows in her register. Charan-Po-Rantan are playing a live score to the original Godzilla at the Japan Society tomorrow night, April 28 at 8 but the show is sold out. For fans of awe-inspiring accordion music and low-budget monster movies, there’ll be a waitlist at the box office at 333 E 47th St. starting an hour before the show.

Meet Jordan Kostov

Jordan Kostov isn’t pushing a new album at the moment, but he makes brilliant music. The Macedonian-born accordionist and composer is a big part of clarinet virtuoso Vasko Dukovski’s deliciously diverse Amniotic Fluid album reviewed here earlier this year, and the songs on Kostov’s Revebnation page are just as smart and eclectic. There’s over an hour worth of music there from throughout his career – haunting film pieces, accordion jazz, Balkan songs, and works for choir and orchestra that typically go on for eight minutes or more. He writes surreal, cerebral, uncanny, dark stuff.

Farina, swaying and pulsing with clattering percussion, alternates accordion and many clarinet voices into a hypnotically psychedelic, lively stew: wheat flour has never been so much fun. Salsa’s Truck, from Kostov’s 2010 album Salsa’s Journeys with his Ensemble Moderne, is a strange epic, its big choruses carried first by an oud and then a big choir, Kostov’s accordion moving between swirling, rapidfire righthand lines and rich, haunting washes of chords. The nine-minute In the Guest House works its way slowly from rainy day ambience to sheer horror.

Unpredictable as the jazzier stuff here is, Kostov still grounds it in the otherworldly chromatic roots of his native region. Cveta, a piece for accordion, bass, drums and brass alternates between a spacious, suspenseful dirge and a jaunty shuffle. Friendship features lots of wryly noisy improvisation from Kostov and a delicious stereo mix that separates his accordion’s many voicings.

There’s also a gorgeously lush, Middle Eastern-tinged, orchestrated theme for accordion, choir and percussion; a moody, windswept ballad with stark cello and bubbly clarinet; an apprehensive nocturne that sets accordion and trumpet over pillowy strings; an uneasy Balkan James Bond theme of sorts (Kostov gets a lot of film work); a tango-tinged piece for accordion and bassoon; a brief, bustling Keystone Kops theme that morphs into a surreal waltz; and a spacy miniature for solo accordion titled Univers. If we ever needed a reminder that some of the world’s most exciting music is coming out of the Balkans, this is it. Check out his bio page for all the projects he’s played with. And for what it’s worth, Reverbnation ranks Kostov and his ensembles as #2 among bands in Kavadarci, Macedonia, raising the intriguing question: who’s #1?

Cosmopolitan Surrealism from Rabih Abou-Khalil

Lebanese-French oudist and composer Rabih Abou-Khalil’s latest album Hungry People is jaunty, funny, unpredictably trippy and quintessentially cosmopolitan. It’s nebulously Middle Eastern, but it owes as much to American jazz and rock (especially Frank Zappa) as it does any traditional levantine style. The lead instrument here, for the most part, is not the oud but Sardinian singer Gavino Murgia’s terse, resonant soprano sax. Accordionist Luciano Biondini adds lickety-split Mediterranean flair alongside tuba virtuoso Michel Godard, who somehow gets his big horn to emulate an entire brass section’s worth of sounds. It’s ironic yet not particularly surprising that the most potentially comedic instrument on such a humor-driven album would be given a more serioso role than the rest of the band. Eclectic drummer Jarrod Cagwin propels this beast with beats that run the gamut from mighty to delicate.

For the most part, these songs don’t frequently employ the haunting, modal Middle Eastern grooves that a lot of fans of this music  gravitate toward. To set the stage, the blithe opening track, Shrilling Chicken adds some bouncy Moroccan flavor to a familiar American blues progression. While an oud, an accordion and growly electric bass all vamping the blues over a North African beat might not be what you might expect, that’s pretty much the point here. The second cut, When the Dog Bites has Zappa-esque surrealism, a latin-tinged groove, a funky tuba bassline and droll throat-singing from Murgia.

Unsurprisingly, the best songs here – and the ones that will appeal the most to fans of more traditional, uneasily slinky levantine sounds – are the serious ones. A Better Tomorrow is one of the rare places where the oud gets centerstage – and finally a long, suspenseful solo – lit up by Cagwin’s lush cymbal work. And Dreams of a Dying City has the feel of a cautionary tale, terse, elegaic and insistently, ominously crescendoing.

The rest of the album shifts from satirically bustling cinematics (Bankers’ Banquet and the offhandedly chilling Hats and Cravats) to shuffling Irish reel allusions (Fish & Chips & Mushy Peas), to madcap 50s Egyptian film music (When Frankie Shot Lara), to unexpectedly pensive and lyrical (If You Should Leave Me), to the busy Shaving Is Boring, Waxing Is Painful, the closest thing to straight-up jazz here with its tricky metrics. Those who like this album also ought to check out Abou-Khalil’s orchestral works, which his inimitable brand of surrealism to new levels with some lavish arrangements. This one’s out now from Harmonia Mundi.

More Fun with the Debutante Hour

The Debutante Hour are an irrepressibly fun, irreverent, occasionally satirical hyper-literate harmony trio from Brooklyn with a theatrical stage show and a love of costumes. Their brand-new third studio album, An Awkward Time with the Debutante Hour is streaming at their Bandcamp site; they’re doing the album release show this Thursday March 15th at Littlefield at around 9:30, with the amazing Choban Elektrik and their psychedelic Balkan music opening the night at 7:30, followed by Schwervon.

Some of the Debutante Hour’s songs are satirical, but they can also be disarmingly serious. Sometimes quirky, sometimes coy, sometimes unexpectedly poignant, there’s no other band on the planet that remotely resembles them. Susan Hwang is typically the drummer in the group, but she also plays keyboards, as does Maria Sonevytsky, who also contributes baritone ukulele and drums. Cellist Mia Pixley usually plays the basslines but also gets to add the occasional austere string part or take a plaintive solo. Everybody in the band writes, takes a turn on lead vocals and contributes to the charming three-part harmonies which have become the band’s signature sound. If you have to hang a name on what the Debutante Hour does – which isn’t really fair, given the diversity of the styles they explore – you could call it new wave. They’re better musicians than, say, the Slits or the Raincoats, but they have a similar blend of edgy humor and bouncy melodies.

In case you’re wondering, the new album is too much fun to be awkward. The quirkiest song is the opening track, Doo Wop Girl, a catchy, surreal girlgroup soul tune with producer Peter Hess (who is sort of the fifth Beatle here) flavoring the mix with roto organ and a wry baritone sax bassline. Parking finds the noir cabaret lurking in the adventure that every urban driver knows by heart (c’mon peeps, give it up and take the train!). With its scampering Celtic accordion, Milestone is an inscrutable story told from the point of view of a country girl who can’t wait to get out: “The light that shines on the horizon is just another pair of headlights coming on strong,” she grouses.

The funniest song here is Sexy Sister, one of the more theatrical numbers. “She was quiet and melancholic and awkward when she was small…but magic things can happen thanks to puberty!” The ending is too spot-on to give away. Another track that’s almost as funny is Everybody Thinks I’m a Spy (But I’m Not), a creepy hypnotic ukulele trip-hop soul song – this band’s fearlessness about mixing up musical styles is one of the coolest things about them. “There is no camera taping you from my hat, I just like this hat and it’s cold, that’s what hats are made for,” the girl in the song explains emphatically: after all, she’s just an innocuous musicology student. Or not.

Illusions (Madame Bovary’s) is the most cynical song here, messing with the fourth wall: “I’ve got illusions, I’ve gotta lose them, that’s what they’re there for,” the doomed woman insists. There’s another song about her right afterward, a lush piano ballad that explores how she’s “never been good at being happy.” The album ends on an unexpectedly bitter note with another cabaret-flavored tune, A Book You’ll Never Read, whose author took seven years to finish it just as Michaelangelo, “possessed by either God or greed took seven years to paint the Sistine Chapel.” The rest of the songs include a torchy, dreamy country ballad and a tango [a Chabuca Granda cover?] with a whirlwind of cool contrapuntal vocals.

Rachelle Garniez At Barbes: Under the Weather But On Her Game

Listen up fellow music bloggers – Rachelle Garniez always makes good copy. Last night at Barbes wasn’t even one of her best shows, and it was still pretty classic. Through oompah punk, indomitable gospel-rock (My House of Peace, her 2009 single produced by Jack White and released on his Third Man label), oldtimey swing and a hilarious pseudo-homage to Jean-Claude Van Damme, she improvved her intros, jamming her way into every song, playing accordion – and piano on a few songs mid-set – backed only by her longtime bassist Dave Hofstra. She made an unexpected segue into Take the A Train, speaking for everyone who’s ever ridden that train to the end: it’s the reeeeeeaaaaaaal slow way to get to the Rockaways. Garniez is New York to the core and usually makes that obvious, very subtly: tonight was not one of those nights. More about that a little later. She opened the set with torrents of accordion and the torrents of images in Tourmaline, a characteristically inscrutable, lyrically rich cut from her 2008 album Melusine Years. “Of all the green-haired girls I’ve seen to date, you blow them all away,” is the turnaround. Then she romped through the oldtimey swing of Kid in the Candy Store, another image-loaded story about a guy who’s reached overdose point with something most of us can’t get enough of.

Garniez asked the crowd if anybody knew who the answer to the mystery of who built the food pyramid – in her world, it’s topped by a crystalline controlled substance that turned out to be sugar. Later on she gently pondered whether there’s anything left that’s not googlable. Other performers might bash you over the head with the implications; Garniez just posed the question, made everybody laugh and then swung her way through God’s Little Acre (from her just-released album Sad-Alive-Dead-Happy), an unapologetic reminiscence of playing the field (and not-so-fond recollection of a face from those days trying to reconnect on Facebook). Much of Garniez’ recent work – Melusine Years in particular – has an elegaic quality, much of that for the edgy New York of the 80s where she grew up. That quietly and matter-of-factly reached critical mass on a slowly unwinding version of People Like You, a blithely sarcastic pop tune from Melusine Years, here an anthem that began with memories of drinking pink Champale, sleeping on the beach and then going for a swim at night out in the Rockaways. She mentioned she tried doing that several years later, in the early zeros, only to be stopped by the cops, a moment that left her temporarily speechless. As the song went on, she finally dropped her guard – something she hardly ever does – and lashed into the posers who’ve move to New York from suburbs far and wide, have taken over her old turf and believe their own bullshit about how special they are. It’s a song that could be an anthem for the Occupy movement. She closed the show with a request, Silly Me, from her 2000 Crazy Blood album: “I never thought that I’d live to see this century,” she mused as the chorus swelled, “Now we’re here, we’ve got the chance to do it better.” Garniez is back at Barbes on January 5 at 8 playing new songs from the new record.