New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: art-rock

Cello Rockers the Icebergs Take Their Dark, Distinctive Sound to the Next Level

It’s always validating to see a good band grow into a great one. Over the last few years, the Icebergs have distinguished themselves from the other acts in the cello-rock demimonde by way of Tom Abbs’ deep well of sounds, beyond that instrument’s usual sonic range, along with frontwoman/lyricist Jane LeCroy’s black humor and often searing metaphors.  O’Death drummer David Rogers-Berry completes the picture with his nimble, counterintuitive, coloristic style. On their new album Add Vice – streaming at Bandcamp – they take their dark, aphoristic, individualistic style to the next level: it’s one of the best records of the year. 

It opens with Fallen Creature, an escape anthem of sorts and the catchiest song the band have ever done. Abbs runs a Brubeck-esque riff over Rogers-Berry’s’s lithely tumbling drums, LeCroy contributing a typically telling lyric: “I am a fallen creature who knows my away around the grounds,,,I know silken threads, the stickiness of woven webs.”

The second track, Chelsea – a brief party scenario –  is a witchy one-chord jam as Lorraine Leckie might do it, with snarling guitar and organ, Abbs playing basslines behind guest Martin Philadelphy’s reverb guitar. Invictus keeps the menacing 60s ambience going; this could be Rasputina covering X. “Your days are numbered, so make them count,” LeCroy advises amidst the swirl.

Willa is a slow, death-obsessed ballad, Abbs’ stark upper-register lines subtly iced with reverb. The menace continues with the defiant, starkly bluesy Made It Rain  a trip-hop take on vintage Nina Simone.

The slinky Full Fathom 5 Ariel’s Song – a Shakespeare setting – has  ghostly call-and-response over funeral organ and the cello’s layers of distorted guitar voicings. They pick up the pace with the sarcastically blithe faux cha-cha Same Symptoms, then return to sinister mode with The Way They Wanted, a chillingly imagistic anti-conformist broadside. “The closer to truth, the bigger the joke,” LeCroy warns.

Motorcycle could be a brooding RZA Wu-Tang backing track as produced by Lee “Scratch” Perry. Bow Spirit is a brisk minor-key shuffle with similar dubwise tinges. The band follow that with Ocean Liner, a gleefully Halloweenish garage rock number (and an obvious choice for a band named the Icebergs).

Pareidolia has a slow, staggered sway behind LeCroy’s accusatory vocals. “What are you using to rip out your eyes so you don’t have to look?” she asks over a staggered, skeletal groove and Abbs’ pickslide slashes in the album’s title track – what an apt song for the year of the plandemic and the lockdown!

The tightly waltzing Little Lamb could be a parody of helicopter parenting, or about something even more troubling. The band wind up this hauntingly expansive album with A Line, LeCroy’s wry litany of metaphors reflecting her long background in the poetry underground. “Get out of line – a line is to cross,” she reminds. Powerful words for a year that may determine the fate of the earth. 

Lush, Elegant, Moodily Orchestrated Chamber Pop from Chanteuse Z Berg

Press releases usually can’t be trusted, especially when it comes to music. The one that came with the new album Get Z to a Nunnery, by a singer who goes by the name of Z Berg characterized the record as “a little bit Francoise Hardy…a little bit Dusty Springfield on drugs..” Intriguing, no? It’s streaming at Bandcamp – see for yourself.

While Berg’s lavishly orchestrated songs are totally retro 60s, her voice is very much in the here and now. There’s a big crack in it when she reaches for a crescendo, Amy Winehouse-style. In quieter moments, her mutedly husky musings bring to mind Americana chanteuses like Tift Merritt. And either the album cost a fortune to produce, or Berg has lots of conservatory-trained friends (or dad still has something left from the old days at the formerly big record label). Sweeping orchestration and classically-tinged piano pervade her moody narratives, full of artful chord changes, dynamic shifts and picturesque imagery. It’s more valium and vodka than Prozac.

The opening ballad, To Forget You sets the stage, floating along over lush strings and a gracefully swaying 6/8 rhythm. The theme of I Fall For the Same Face Every Time is that troubled birds of a feather flock together, set to elegantly arpeggiated piano and baroque harp cascades.

“We didn’t fear the things we did not know,” Berg asserts in another 6/8 number, Time Flies, a pretty generic pop song heavily camouflaged in layers of backward-masked guitar and symphonic gloss. She shifts to a straight-up waltz tempo for Into the Night, a more delicate number that could be Charming Disaster on opium.

A gentle foreboding pervades Calm Before the Storm, the gently fingerpicked guitar, 70s Nashville pop melody and Berg’s plainspoken lyrics bringing to mind Jenifer Jackson in Americana mode. Little Colonel is one of the more skeletal and haunting tracks here, rising to a low-key baroque pop arrangement:

Dear little colonel, one foot in the grave
Fighting the war with an unsteady aim
Is that the goal, to create a crusade
With nothing for no one, so no one is saved
Or safe

It was recorded before the lockdown, but it’s uncanny all the same.

Berg and I (that’s the title) is a doomed noir cabaret number gliding along with mutedly insistent piano, strings and backward masking. Charades, a duet, is more sardonic and ELO-ish, the piano receding behind fingerpicked guitar. “It was a scream when were young and dumb, acid on Topanga Beach, in my mind we’ll always be that free,” Berg recalls in The Bad List, an anguished holiday nightmare breakup scenario: it’s the album’s Fairytale of New York. There’s also a starry instrumental epilogue. This is a sleeper candidate for the shortlist of the best albums of 2020.

A Haunting New Album From the Perennially Relevant Meredith Monk

“We know these things because some of their ancient ones are still among us,” Michael Cerveris’ space alien character intones midway through the third track on Meredith Monk’s new album Memory Game.

Is it any wonder why the lockdowners are trying to kill off all the old people? After all, they remember what it was like not to be spied on, and tracked, or glued to a screen. If the rest of us have no memory of freedom, can we even aspire to it?

That track, Migration, was first performed at the end of the Reagan years, the era that spawned the “culture wars” ignited by that administration’s most florid extremists. In the years since, Monk has never wavered from her signature playful, questioning stance. And now this icon of the avant garde has a new album, Memory Game – streaming at Bandcamp – with members of her vocal ensemble bolstered by the Bang on a Can All-Stars. It’s a mix of previously unrecorded material from her dystopic opera The Games plus plus new arrangements of earlier Monk works dating back to the 80s. There are both instrumentals and vocal numbers here. On the surface, it’s trippy and playful, with a quirky sense of humor and all kinds of demands on the vocalists’ extended technique. But there’s a frequent undercurrent of unease.

The opening instrumental, Spaceship is a circling theme with bright clarinet, stark violin, starry keyboards and unprocessed, trebly electric guitar over a steady rhythm. It’s a potent reminder of how vast Monk’s influence has been on successive generations of minimalists, not to mention a substantial percentage of the indie classical demimonde.

Bleckmann has fun swooping over Monk’s blippy, warptoned, insistent electric piano in The Gamemaster’s Song, bolstered by spare guitar and bass. The other singers – Katie Geissinger and Allison Sniffin – enter over a creepy music box-like backdrop in Memory Song. The animal allusions are prime Monk, as is the litany of references to everything this civilization lost.

With its macabre synth cascades and Planet of the Apes vocals, Downfall is aptly titled. The similarly sardonic Waltz in 5s has echoey violin, stately circling piano and operatically-tinged vocalese. Tokyo Cha-Cha is a loopy faux-salsa throwback to Monk’s earlier, more carefree work. It’s more Asian than latin, until Ken Thomson’s gruff baritone sax enters the picture.

The best of the instrumentals is Totentanz, a blithely menacing, marionettish theme with gracefully leaping clarinet, piano and grimly insistent percussion. The group return to a closer approximation of salsa to close the album on a jaunty note with Double Fiesta. This coouldn’t have been released at a more appropriate time.

Sharply Lyrical, Smart Purist Rock Eclecticism From Spygenius

Canterbury, UK-based band Spygenius play densely lyrical, erudite rock that draws on sixty years of classic tunesmithing. Their new double gatefold vinyl album Man on the Sea – streaming at Bandcamp – is as ambitious as it is vast. Their ability to channel an amazing number of styles is breathtaking. New wave? Check. The Beatles? Doublecheck. 80s pop, 70s art-rock? Check and doublecheck. Clever puns and cynical humor notwithstanding, frontman/guitarist Peter Watts’ songs occasionally take themselves a bit too seriously. But when this band connect, they really hit it out of the park (gratuitous American baseball reference in a review of an English band, WTF?), and they do that a lot here.

The opening track, Another True Story is Rubber Soul Beatles as Squeeze might have done it, with a twelve-string guitar: Oxford group Dada Paradox come to mind. Likewise, Albion, a snide dismissal of icy British conformity, is a McCartneyesque ballad with hints of the tropics and an unexpected snarl as it goes on.

Propelled by Ruth Rogers’ bubbly, dancing bass and Alan Cannings’ tightly clustering drums,  If You Go A-Roving looks back to the chimepop of 80s bands like Happy Mondays, with a Celtic tinge: keyboardist Matt Byrne’s trebly carnival organ is a deft touch. They keep the jangle and clang going throughout Salaud Days, a sendup of hypocrites. The title is a pun: “salaud” is French for “bastard,” Watts using the word in the Sartrean sense of an individual who refuses or neglects to exercise his free choice.

Side one concludes with Tomorrowland, a very clever critique of wide-eyed, futuristic techie fantasies, Byrne’s piano leaping and bounding uneasily. Side two begins with the Kinks-ish Café Emery Hill, followed by the sobering Dolphinarium 1986, a moody Celtic folk-rock reflection on how nostalgia is the enemy of history.

New Street is a snarky mashup of organ-driven 60s psychedelia and mid-80s REM. The album’s high point is the metaphorically loaded seafaring ballad Man Overboard: this grimly detailed account of a mutiny wouldn’t be out of place in the Charming Disaster catalog if that band played eight-minute songs.

Green Eyed Monster opens side three amid wild sheets of noise and then an anthemic, minor-key sway like the Church circa 1985 or so. From there the group segue into In a Garden, Byrne’s phantasmagorically twinkling piano elevating it above REM ripoff level. “She can’t help being stupider than you,” Watts rails in the scampering, organ-fueled Don’t Blame It on Your Mother, a dis to somebody who’ll do anything to avoid facing up to responsibility – a recurrent theme here.

Midnight Bandola comes across as an Irish take on the Grateful Dead circa American Beauty.  Rogers sings Spite, its bright Manchester pop sheen masking her hilariously venomous portrait of a pompous twit. Watch Your Back rises slowly from unresolved Robyn Hitchcock jangle to a big payoff. Windy (an original, not the 60s pop hit) has its airy late Beatles ambience: it could be late-period Love Camp 7 with a keyboard. That’s where the album ought to end; the intro to the last track is torture. Back in the radio-and-records age, this band would have been huge.

More Radically Intuitive Reinventions From Marianne Dissard

We’ve reached the most disturbing time in the history of music. Musicians are being forced onto the dole, forced to take jobs in unfamiliar and often undesirable fields because the lockdowners are hell-bent on destroying the arts. While innumerable online collaborations have sprung up, most of them have turned out stiff and uninspired. While you can always improvise against what somebody has already recorded, it’s impossible to replicate the chemistry of being next to someone onstage or in a studio and engaging with them unless you’re actually there.

One of the few artists to successfully overcome those limitations, and create a lot of material during the lockdown, is French-born, Tucson-based songwriter Marianne Dissard. Maybe the fact that she’s a singer, that she’s used to doing a final vocal take over music that’s already been recorded, has empowered her. Whatever the case, she seems to be about halfway through creating the last album anyone would expect from her: a covers record, sung in English, no less.

The fact that she has exquisite taste in covers helps. She’s been releasing them as singles: the first one was an practically nine-minute, dirgey reinvention of Phil Ochs’ chilling lost-submarine epic The Scorpion Departs But Never Returns.

After that she put out “his” and “hers” version of the quietly vindictive Janis Ian folk-pop classic At Seventeen. This blog is partial to hers; it’s more orchestral, with elegantly mulitracked bass and cello by Thoger Lund from Giant Sand. Dissard changes the syncopation and sings it line by line, with vastly more angst than the sullen, deadpan original. When she reaches the point where “Smalltown eyes will gaze at you in dull surprise, when payment due exceeds accounts received,” it will give you chills.

The latest single is a considerably dirtier remake of Steely Dan’s Dirty Work. Dissard tweaks the gender references and also gives the song a lot more angst than the original (remember that the record label insisted on using studio crooner David Palmer instead of the grittier-voiced Donald Fagen on the 1972 single).

All this is streaming at Bandcamp an addition to a sepulchral, previously unreleased recording of Dissard singing Kath Bloom’s It’s So Hard To Come Home, backed by Calexico‘s Joey Burns on guitars and banjo!

Artfully Orchestrated, Gorgeously Angst-Fueled Tunesmithing From Steve Dawson & Funeral Bonsai Wedding

Steve Dawson & Funeral Bonsai Wedding play an achingly lush, angst-ridden brand of chamber pop that looks back to 50s lounge music but isn’t cheesy. Brian Carpenter‘s most noirish adventures, Ward White‘s work with Joe McGinty, and Jon DeRosa at his most orchestral are good points of comparison. Dawson’s latest album Last Flight Out is streaming at Bandcamp.

The album opens with the slow, undulating title track, awash in strings far more stark than syrupy. Dawson sings in an uneasy, somewhat gritty tenor. Jason Adasiewicz’s rippling vibraphone enters over the lithe acoustic rhythm section of drummer Charles Rumback and bassist Jason Roebke ; the song could be about escaping an invasion, or a metaphor for a doomed relationship.

Despite the persistent extinction metaphors, there’s hope in Mastodon, a brokenhearted waltz, Rumback’s cymbal washes mingling with creepily fluttering strings and the echo of the vibes. Built around a simple, catchy string riff, However Long It Take has a steady clave beat and rousingly optimistic gospel harmonies.

The Monkey’s Mind Is on the Prowl has a cocooning, lullaby-esque atmosphere that hits a peak with a balletesque coda from the strings and then a long, hypnotic outro. The album’s starkest and best song is While We Were Staring Into Our Palms, a cautionary tale about eternal vigilance being the price of liberty:

It might have all gone differently
The chemistry failed
That tree just had to come down
Blind rage prevails
Oh say can you see?

It’s Not What You Think has a flinty, Sam Reider-esque folksiness, a wise admonition not to take things on face value. What a refreshingly original, smart, tastefully crafted album.

A.A. Williams Sings Gloomy Songs for a Gloomy Era

A.A. Williams plays slow, toweringly crescendoing, gothic-tinged art-rock with world-weary noir cabaret overtones. If you feel “alone with nothing at all,” as Williams intones at the end of the second track on her debut album Forever Blue – or as washed-out and pale as she characterizes herself later on the record – this is your jam.

The first song on the album -streaming at Bandcamp  – is All I Asked For Was It to End, an elegant, brooding, soul-tinged piano ballad slowly rising to an angst-fueled art-rock sweep with distantly searing slide guitar soaring overhead: “All I asked for was to end it all,” Williams quietly insists. It reminds of the quieter side of the Bright Smoke’s Mia Wilson.

Melt opens with a spare bass-and-vocal verse, then a skeletal waltz that follows a slow upward climb to majestic grandeur: “These choice will come back and I will go back into the night again,” Williams asserts. Dirt – an original, not the Iggy Pop classic – begins with hints of classic country and grows more envelopingly Lynchian. But at least there’s hope: “I never thought that I could hold on,” Williams muses through her wide-angle vibrato.

With her stark reverb-guitar intro, Fearless is another track that wouldn’t be out of place in the Bright Smoke catalog. Williams’ ominously overdubbed vocal harmonies and the unexpected descent into a death metal-tinged abyss provide a welcome, unexpected jolt.

Glimmer is a gloomy Britfolk-tinged waltz with smartly terse orchestration and the expected big crunchy crescendo. The album hits a hypnotically minimalistic interlude with Love and Pain, and then its most enigmatic track,Wait: basslines figure heavily in in both songs.

Williams closes the record with I’m Fine, a single bell tolling before the somber piano intro. It’s an apology for being depressed all the time. In the year of the lockdown, there’s no shame in that: it makes you one of the gang. Let’s just not let being depressed stop us from demanding our rights. No more lockdowns again, ever!

Smart, Poignant Songs and Disarmingly Shattering Vocals From Kari van der Kloot

Singer Kari van der Kloot’s new album The Architects is completely its own animal. The closest reference point is Jenifer Jackson‘s early zeros work: informed by jazz, with rock tunefulness, classical lustre, breathtakingly unselfconscious, crystalline vocals and disarmingly sharp lyrics.

The key to the record – streaming at Bandcamp – is Caution, Nathan Ellman-Bell’s subtle, quasi-martial drums behind Jamie Reynolds’ spare, brooding, chiming piano, violinist Lisanne Tremblay’s turbulent lines channeling the horror-stricken angst this country felt in the wake of the 2016 Presidential election. “Walk slow with your eyes closed, how could I have known how much more we could fall down,” van der Kloot wonders, rising to a leaping vocalese solo. There are no words for moments like that.

The title track is a hopeful sequel, pondering the kind of world we might be able to build in the wake of such a tragedy: van der Kloot’s vocals over Reynolds’ purposeful piano bring to mind another brilliant, poltically aware jazz songwriter, Sara Serpa.

The opening track, What I’ll Find has both tenderness and wistful anticipation, a portrait of searching for home set to a moody clave jazz backdrop. The layers of vocals reflect van der Kloot’s background as a chorister; Tremblay’s jagged lines nail the song’s persistent restlessness.

Swimming is a pensively circling, metaphorically-charged tableau about being in over your head, with an edgy chordal solo from Reynolds. It May Not Always Be So is a setting of an E.E. Cummings (sorry, capitalizing proper nouns is done for a reason) poem, with starkly resonant violin.

Same Song, an insistent, steady portrait of frustration and breaking away which could work on many levels, has a wryly oscillating synth solo from Reynolds. The disquieting intro to Ask reflects the theme of a shy person trying to get up the courage to ask for more: it’s a brave, violin-fueled, jazz-oriented take on Dan Penta‘s comment that “I would have been greedy if I’d have known my size.”

Hide and Seek is a contemplation of one-sided relationships, whether romantically or otherwise, set to a sternly circular minor-key backdrop. Arguably the album’s most lushly bustling number, Careful Construction reflects the precarious situation anyone who managed to move to New York faced in the past decade, surrounded by forbidding speculator properties decimating practically every streetcorner; yet van der Kloot refuses to let all this rob her of being centered.

The album winds up with Holding Pattern, a tersely minimalistic, suspenseful portrait of a long-distance relationship that actually worked out well, based on the changes to Steely Dan’s Dirty Work. Yikes! A stealth contender for best vocal jazz album of 2020, right up there with Aubrey Johnson‘s Unraveled.

Epic, Sweeping, Gothic Nocturnes From the Moon and the Nightspirit

Don’t let the Moon and the Nightspirit’s name, or the title of their new album, Aether, lead you to think that this is hippie-dippy new age bullshit. Gothic psychedelia would be a more accurate way to describe the Hungarian band’s sound. They sing in their native language. The record is a suite, more or less; it comes with lyrics and English translations, which have a mystical focus. They like long, hypnotic, slowly crescendoing tableaux with both folk and classical influences.

Stately piano and frontwoman ‘Agnes Toth’s misty vocals blend with a whirl of white noise as the album’s opening, title track gets underway. From there Mihály Szabó takes over the mic, rising from a whisper to a roar as this one-chord jam hits a pummeling, imaginatively orchestrated sway. It comes full circle at the end.

That pretty much sets the stage for the rest of the record – streaming at Bandcamp and available on both purple and black limited-edition vinyl. The second track, Kaputlan Kapukon At (Through the Gateless Gates) has spare, circling twelve-string guitar and eerily tinkling piano over the slowly swaying neoromantic angst.

Toth moves back to lead vocals as the drifting minor-key vamp of Égi Messzeegek (Celestial Distances) gathers force; that bagpipe guitar is a tasty touch. Ringing twelve-string poignancy returns along with graceful, incisive harp above the oscillating loops and disquieting close harmonies in A Szarny (The Wing): it’s the album’s best and most majestic track.

With a deep-space twinkle from the harp and the keys, the album’s most hypnotic soundscape is Logos. The group follow a slow series of layers rich with somberly picked guitars, spare piano, keening microtonal violin and a wash of vocals in A Mindenseg Hivasa (Call of the Infinite). The suite ends with Asha, its Balkan folk illusions and a loop receding to the edge of the universe. Turn on, tune in, you know the rest.

Ted Hearne Catches a Grimly Pivotal Moment in New York History

Fort Greene will always hold a special place in this blog’s heart. It was a satellite office for the better part of a couple of years.

Browsing at Greenlight Books. Tacos at Castro’s. Secret theatre staged by the sharpest ten-year-old dramatist on the planet. Bluegrass music. Perfect made-to-order sandwiches at Fulton Finest Deli, coffee and the Sunday Times in Fort Greene Park. Stoop sales, organic herbs from the community garden, a pair of headphones left curbside at the most serendipitous moment. The Biggie Smalls mural on the corner. The Waverly Avenue Halloween block party.

An irresistible, devastatingly smart brunette cultural critic who would soon move on to the Ivy League from her city college professorship. You get the picture.

So what the hell does Ted Hearne‘s lavishly epic new album Place- streaming at Bandcamp – have to do with all this? As the narrative coalesces, his critique of how gentrification has devastated the neighborhood takes on a withering focus. Charles Mingus is cited as an influence, although that’s through a glass, darkly. This is Hearne’s most psychedelic rock-influenced album to date, and in that sense, his most accessible, which could be construed as a positive development considering the abstruseness of, say, his 2015 album The Source, a shout-out to American heroine Chelsea Manning

The record begins innocently and minimallistically with a father and his six-year-old son asleep next to him, and ends with “projectile vomit of the stars.” Lavish gospel interludes give way to acerbically kinetic chamber pop, psychedelic funk, glitchy autotune, abrupt channel-switching non-segues and High Romantic orchestral angst, and then back. You could call this Hearne’s Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. He’s known as a singer, but his piano work here is solid, especially when it comes to the gospel stuff. He also shares the mic: Saul Williams, Ayanna Woods, Isaiah Robinson Josephine Lee, Steven Bradshaw and the Chicago Children’s Choir contribute passionately.

“Is it ok to say ‘white supremacy’ in white spaces? Is it ok to say ‘Your kind ain’t welcome here’? Is it ok to say welcome?” Woods asks in the album’s first disquietingly hip-hop influenced interlude. It’s here that Hearne’s satire reaches redline. In typical yuppie fashion, children serve as pawns in the status game in a twee dystopia where “We’ve got pop-up shops that give out water for free.”

“The land is mine, and the land was mined,” is one of several particularly telling refrains. Hearne addresses both the Great Migration out of the former slave territories, as well as the yuppie puppy infestation of the past twenty years or so. “Systemic prejudice, don’t blame me,” the future McMansion owner blithely insists – as he buys into a system that’s about to crash, with potentially lethal results. The avant garde has long been an insular demimonde largely funded by and targeted to the idle classes, but Hearne seems hell-bent on changing that. If there’s reason, or time, or necessity for a music blog to exist at the end of 2020, you will see this on the best albums of the year page here.