New York Music Daily

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Tag: art song

Celebrating a Tragic, Iconoclastic Hungarian Hero at the National Arts Club

Wouldn’t you wash your hands after you touched a corpse? Hospital physicians at Vienna’s Algelemine Krankenhaus didn’t. From a 21st century perspective, the results were predictably catastrophic.

Ray Lustig’s grim, powerfully resonant song cycle Semmelweis, which premiered on September 11 at the National Arts Club, begins in 1848, One of Europe’s deadliest outbreaks of puerperal fever is killing one in ten new mothers at the hospital. Hungarian-born obstetrician Ignac Semmelweis is at a loss to explain it.

Semmelweis was a tragic hero in the purest sense of the word. Decades before Louis Pasteur, Semmelweis discovered the bacterial connection for disease transmission. But rather than being celebrated for his discovery and for saving countless of his own patients, he was derided as a medical heretic,  ended up losing his mind and died alone in a mental asylum seventeen years later. If not for the reactionary Viennese medical establishment, terrified of being blamed for the epidemic, today we would say “semmelweissed” instead of “pasteurized.” In an age where leakers are murdered, whistleblowers are jailed as terrorists and 9/11 historians are derided as conspiracy theorists, this story has enormous relevance.

And the music turned out to be as gripping as the narrative. Out in front of an impressively eclectic twelve-piece ensemble for the marjority of the performance, soprano Charlotte Mundy dexterously showed off a vast grasp of all sorts of styles, singing Matthew Doherty’s allusively foreboding lyrics to Lustig’s shapeshifting melodies. Pianist Katelan Terrell. accordionist Peter Flint and violinist Sam Katz wove an alternately austere and lustrous backdrop for the rest of the singers: Lustig himself in the role of Semmelweis, alongside Marcy Richardson, Catherine Hancock, Brett Umlauf, Charlotte Dobbs, Jennifer Panara and Guadalupe Peraza.

The suite began with a wash of close harmonies and ended on a similarly otherworldly note with a Hungarian lullaby sung in eerily kaleidoscopic counterpoint by the choir. The story unwound mostly in flashbacks – by women in peril, ghosts or Semmelweis himself, tormented to the grave by all the dead women he wasn’t able to save.

Many of the songs had a plaintive neoromanticism: the most sepulchral moments were where the most demanding extended technique came into play, glissandoing and whispering and vertiginously shifting rhythms. That’s where the group dazzled the most. Recurrent motives packed a wallop as well, voicing both the dread of the pregnant women and Semmelweis’ self-castigation for not having been able to forestall more of the epidemic’s toll than he did. The Hungarian government will celebrate the bicentennial of Semmelweis’ birth next year, a genuine national hero.

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Olga Bell’s Irreverently Funny, Relevant Lincoln Center Debut Trumps Adversity

Olga Bell is hilarious. In her American Songbook debut at Lincoln Center’s Kaplan Penthouse last night, the Russian-born art-rock/avant garde keyboardist/singer validated a brave piece of booking, in the process triumphing over all sorts of adversity. This was a tough gig from the git-go. Cheefing on what seemed like a bottomless thermos til it was gone, then finally switching to water, she battled a cold along with some unfamiliar gear that malfunctioned to the point of threatening to completely derail her show. But she persevered, cheerfully breaking the fourth wall when she wasn’t mercilessly pillorying the yuppie careerism, incessant status-grubbing and money obsessions of gentrifier-era Brooklyn, which she now calls home.

And she did it with more than just her lyrical jabs, which turned out to be a lot subtler than her musical barbs. Those drew the heartiest laughs from a sold-out audience of well-heeled twentysomethings whose mere presence in Manhattan on a Friday night was something of a surprise: turns out that not everyone in zip code 11221 is petrified of being geotagged outside it.

When she hit her pitch pedal and ran her vocals through a toddler-voice patch to make fun of a guy who’s too big for his britches, and then a little later turned the kiss-off anthem Power User into phony hip-hop, the crowd roared. She had similar fun with her electronics and all the loops she’d stashed away in her sequencer, particularly a Bernie Worrell-style low bass synth setting that she worked for every droll riff she could think of.

Her between-song patter also had edge and bite. Acknowledging that for her, this gig spelled revenge for having been rejected by the Juilliard folks a few floors below, she played elegantly nuanced, neoromantically-tinged piano when she wasn’t fiddling with her mixer, or loading a stubborn loop device, or feeding layers of melody into an arpeggiator. Such things exist: clearly, there’s a market among players who prefer chords instead. She namechecked “aspirational hipsters,” including the guy at the corner bar who’s on the take more than he’s on the make.

“Wherefore art thou, Doppio?” she posed to another would-be romantic doofus. Even the simpler, techier, disco-oriented numbers were laced with taunts and sarcasm, particularly Stomach It and Your Life Is a Lie, among other tracks from her 2016 album Tempo. Toward the end of the show, she was joined by cellist Andrea Lee for a moody Russian border-rock ballad from the 2014 album Krai, and then soul singer Sarah Lucas, who belted out one of the more pop-oriented electronic numbers. Bell encored with a vaudevillian piano tune about finding romance on the L train, which she’d written in 2006 for the Rockwood Music Hall open mic. Who knew there was once such a thing – and who knew that somebody who played there would someday headline at Lincoln Center.

This year’s American Songbook series continues to venture much further afield than the theatre music and pop hits from the 1930s and 40s that it was created for almost twenty years ago. There are two Kaplan Penthouse shows next week that deserve special mention: on Tuesday, March 28 at 8 PM, the Cactus Blossoms, who have an eerie resemblance to the Everly Brothers, bring their rapturous harmonies and disconsolate Americana ballads. And the following night, March 29, powerhouse Ghanian-born oldschool soul belter Ruby Amanfu leads her band.

Kinan Azmeh’s Somber New Song Cycle Draws a Sold-Out Crowd at Symphony Space

In a chat with the audience after their sold-out show at Symphony Space last night, clarinetist Kinan Azmeh and cellist Kinan Abou-Afach explained that their great childhood ambition had been to busk in the Istanbul subway, since their Damascus hometown didn’t have one. It was a humbling revelation from two extraordinary musicians whose work defies category – and has still not been been performed in a duo arrangement on an train platform anywhere in Turkey.

Azmeh also revealed that in the wake of the 2011 Syrian revolution, he found himself so overwhelmed that he didn’t write any music for a full year. Since then, the Yo-Yo Ma collaborator has made up for lost time: just in this past year alone, this blog has caught him playing lively Middle Eastern flavored jazz, intricately conversational improvised music and ominous, war-themed soundscapes. This concert was the album release show for his latest cycle, Songs for Days to Come, commissioned by pianist Lenore Davis, impresario of the popular Upper West Side St. Urban concert and literary salon series. She and Azmeh’s fellow Damascus expat, soprano Dima Orsho, filled out the quartet to perform the raptly brooding, sometimes harrowing five-part suite in its entirety. Each song was preceded by the recorded voice of each of the five expat Syrian poets whose original Arabic words Azmeh had set to music.

The news that the last remaining hospital in the beseiged city of Aleppo had been destroyed in a bombing raid may have fueled the musicians’ steely resolve and acute sense of anguish. The poems – by Lukman Derky, Mohammad Abou-Laban, Hazem Al-Azmeh, Liwaa Yazji and Adnan Odeh – speak of abandonment by god (or sheer disbelief), allude to wartime horrors, solitude, alienation and loss. The most gripping of all, by Odeh, was a retelling of Little Red Riding Hood, where the narrative itself is blown to bits. It was the one moment during the concert where Azmeh went to the deep well of classical Arabic maqamat for gracefully plaintive Levantine melody.

Beyond that, tensely still, sustained passages rose to angst-fueled codas and then returned groundward. Davis played Azmeh’s artful, elegaic bell-tone, Mompou-esque motives and muted inside-the-piano accents with a wounded, resonant restraint matched by rapidfire, circular lines. Likewise, Orsho moved effortlessly between a muted calm – most vividly during one of the early numbers, evoking a Syrian singer killed by a knife to the throat – and soaring operatics. Azmeh’s clarinet alternated between rippling, uneasy balletesque passages and a mournful sustain while Abou-Afach anchored the music in austere washes of sound. Like the rest of Azmeh’s work, it’s informed by but hardly limited to a Syrian idiom. That there was such an engaged, multicultural audience assembled to witness this concert, at a time in New York when live music is often no more than a meme for grubbing for status, speaks well for the people of this city.

The Songs for Days to Come album – streamng at Spotify – is the first in a series commissioned by Davis, with a second volume planned for the spring of next year.

Gay Marshall Channels Parisian Depth and Joie de Vivre at Pangea

Chanteuse Gay Marshall‘s show last night at Pangea turned out to be as memorable and dynamic as Paris itself. It was also riotously funny – a Parisian might call it “marrant à chier.” In a little over an hour onstage, Marshall made good on her promise of a very individualistic musical tour of her adopted hometown, more imbued with knifes-edge intensity and current-day relevance than vaudevillian flair. Opening with a witheringly cynical Dave Frishberg number and closing with classic Piaf, she mined the depth and intensity of half a century’s worth of iconic and obscure chanson. She’s bringing this spectacle back to Pangea for a monthlong, weekly residency, repeating next Tuesday, Oct 25 and then consecutive Wednesdays, Nov 2 and 9 at 7 PM. Cover is $20 in this lowlit, intimate space, the scent of Mediterranean herbs wafting through the room. Most cabaret food sucks; this place is a refreshing exception to that rule.

To say that Marshall’s plushly crystalline, endlessly mutable mezzo-soprano vocals are disarmingly direct is an understatement. Being an actress, you would expect her to sing in character, yet there was zero affectation in these individuals’ angst, and longing, and devilish joe de vivre. Alternating between her own vivid English translations, and flawless French throughout each of the night’s numbers, she was joined by pianist Ian Herman, who switched seamlessly between wry barrelhouse theatrics, wistful blues, neoromantic lustre and the occasional blazing coda.

The audience was most transfixed by the darkest material. With its harrowing portrait of over-the-edge despair, tricky thematic shifts and vocal leaps and bounds, the night’s most challenging number was Stone, a roof-raiser from the obscure French musical Starmania. The night’s high point was not a whimsical love song but a harrowing triptych of Jacques Brel antiwar ballads. Taking inspiration from Marshall’s father-in-law, a World War II vet, the duo segued from the elegaic Les Grognards to the macabre tritones of La Colombe and finally the Vietnam-era Sons Of (Fils De), which reminds how the kids we send off to war have the same dreams, and nightmares, as those we don’t. Marshall was moved to the point of tears by that number, as well as when she recalled a moment busking on the banks of the Seine, where a homeless guy put money in her beret. Artifice is not a part of what she does, at least here.

Her between-song banter was priceless. She’d set up a whimsicallly minimalist building-block Paris atop the piano, using it as a springboard for wry recollections of her experiences as an American there. A vocal coach who couldn’t bear Marshall showing up in shorts with her skateboard; a Centre Pompidou exhibit exploring the meaning of nothingness (it happened; Marshall went); and the ne plus ultra vanity of people like the woman in Boris Vian’s playfully lyrical, satirical J’suis Snob.

As someone who’s lived in both Paris and New York, Marshall absolutely nailed the connection between the two cities. Much as we may love our respective stomping grounds, we’re equally cynical about them. Which is where her insight and unselfconscious depth really took centerstage, particularly on the more lighthearted numbers. She left out the third verse of Yves Montand’s Les Grand Boulevards because that was where the guy in the song whisks a girl into an alleyway: Marshall considered this “Trump-worthy,” and the audience roared. And she brought out the underlying unease in Piaf’s Marie la Francaise, a broodingly wistful take of Charles Aznavour’s La Bohème and a new translation of Autumn Leaves, reminding that its original title is Les Feuilles Mortes.

Fun fact: Marshall casually related that she used to bike up to the top of Montmartre. For anyone who’s ever walked that hill, especially after a few drinks, just thinking about that makes you want to jump over the fence and collapse in that meadow at the top. N’est-ce pas?

Carol Lipnik Sings This Year’s Most Hauntingly Mesmerizing Halloween Show

Last night a hunter moon cast its merciless stare over downtown Manhattan, opening some casually concealing corners to predators of all kinds. Inside on the lowlist stage at Pangea, Carol Lipnik took a rapt, silent audience on similarly moonlit journey through ominously murky water imagery, into a world populated by dead clowns, where spirit wolves circle your tracks, hungry ghosts gaze on your flesh and where the only real way to happiness is to get high. With her right hand raised, palm up, as if to conjure a stairway to a better galaxy, she worked every inch of her vast four-octave range throughout a chillingly dynamic, loosely thematic, tragicomically existentialist show. Lipnik has held down a weekly 7 PM Sunday night residency at Pangea for the better part of two years – if there’s any show you should see this Halloween month, this is it. Cover is $20, deals are available through Lipnik’s website and the good food here will ground you in reality while Lipnik takes you elsewhere. One suspects that she’ll really pull out all the stops at the October 30 show.

Widely regarded as the best singer in New York, Lipnik and her longtime pianist Matt Kanelos distill elements of noir cabaret, art-song, psychedelic rock, 70s freak-folk, theatre music and jazz into a blacklit reflecting pool. Kanelos – who is every bit as integral to this performance as Lipnik – held mostly to a rapturous low-midrange resonance, equal parts neoromanticism and jazz, often adding sepulchral electronic touches as well. The duo reinvented Nick Drake’s Black Eyed Dog as a relentless stalker theme, with a glittering chain-link rattle from the piano and Lipnik’s increasingly apprehensive echo effects. She worked two mics, one with a murderously muffled reverb, taking the phantasmagoria in Ray Davies’ Death of a Clown to new levels. The Screamin’ Jay Hawkins classic I Put a Spell On You was more slow conjury than it was outright witchy – until Lipnik picked up her kazobo and blew evilly jealous crow’s cries at the end.

The two gave a bittersweet Celtic lilt to Biff Rose’s cult classic, Molly, but left no doubt that this sad clown’s descent ends at the very bottom of the abyss. Ride on the Light of the Moon, a Lipnik/Kanelos co-write and the night’s most guardedly optimistic interlude, waltzed along with a pensive grace, the singer pulling out all the stops for a stratospheric, operatic coda. The night’s sardonic theme song, Goddess of Imperfection (a co-write with Taneke Ortiz) brought back the lingering echo effects thanks to Michael Jurin‘s pinpoint-precise sound design. Lipnik introduced him at the end as the “fifth Beatle” in this project, and she’s right.

She looked back with equal parts fondness and tongue-in-cheek ghoulishness to Klaus Nomi for her creepy outer-space version of The Twist. But her originals were the night’s strongest songs. A new one set a bestiary of aphroristic Brothers Grimm images over Kanelos’ insistent minimalism. The brooding waltzes Oh, The Tyrrany and The Oyster and the Sand contemplated the ravages of time along with waterborne apocalypse. A steady, suspenseful nocturne based on the James Tate poem Peggy in the Twilight found Lipnik half-singing, half-speaking a wry mystery tale about a woman whose eccentricity isn’t limited to cocktail hour choices like grasshoppers and sidecars. They closed with a harrowing, galloping, Sisyphean art-rock setting of Helen Adam’s poem Farewell, Stranger, encoring with what could be the most enigmatic Moon River ever, then Kanelos’ doomed, politically-charged parlor-pop ballad Nonviolent Man.

And special guest chantuese Gay Marshall – who has a four-week, Paris-themed stand this month at Pangea starting this Tuesday, Oct 18 at 7 PM – made a vivid and apt cameo midway through the show, joining Kanelos in a take of Autumn Leaves featuring Marshall’s own translation of the original French lyrics, revealing new levels of angst and longing.

A Rare, Can’t-Miss Reuinon of Phantasmagorical 80s Legends Kamikaze Ground Crew This Thursday at Roulette

This coming Thursday, Sept 29 at 8 PM there’s a rare reunion of legendary, carnivalesque 80s band Kamikaze Ground Crew at Roulette. Advance tix are $20 and worth it. Before World Inferno, or for that matter, Beat Circus were even conceived, there was this band. Kamikaze Ground Crew were just as phantasmagorical – because they were a real circus band. Fans of the dark and surreal would be crazy to miss this early kickoff to Halloween month.

Since the horn-driven supergroup – whose members over the years included saxophonist Peter Apfelbaum, trumpeter Steven Bernstein and drummer Kenny Wollesen, among others – disbanded, co-founder Gina Leishman has pursued a similarly eclectic solo career, spanning from elegant, Britfolk-inflected chamber pop, to more theatrical material. The highlight of her most recent show at Barbes was a long, understatedly chilling, dystopic “bardic ballad,” as she put it, in the same vein as Dylan’s Lily, Rosemary & the Jack of Hearts, going on for more than ten verses. She played that one on piano, as she did on about half the set, switching to mandola on the rest of the songs, much of the material from a forthcoming album.

Austere strings from violinist Dana Lyn and cellist Hank Roberts lowlit a brooding, rainy-day art-song, Leishman’s calm, steady, nuanced vocals channeling wistful melancholy and saturnine angst. Multi-reedman Doug Wieselman (another Kamikaze alum) added sepulchral sax atmospherics, fluttering over Leishman’s piano as a rather coy, trickly rhythmic number built momentum, like a jazzier Robin Aigner (whose most recent couple of Barbes shows have also been pretty rapturous).

Then Leishman went into sunnier territory with a lush, balmy baroque-pop waltz, stately cello contrasting with soaring, spiraling clarinet. The lilting chamber-folk number after that blended catchy Sandy Denny purism with Chelsea Girl instrumentation, followed by a bossa-inflected tune. Leishman’s solo material is a lot quieter than Kamikaze Ground Crew typically was, so you can expect her and the rest of the crew to pick up the pace for what should be a killer night Thursday at Roulette.

 

A Poignant, Lyrically Potent, Darkly Lush Art-Rock Masterpiece from Joanna Wallfisch

What if you could re-record seven of your songs with a fantastic string quartet? Wouldn’t you spend every waking moment feverishly writing new charts? That might well be what multi-instrumentalist art-rock songwriter Joanna Wallfisch did for her brilliant new album, Gardens in My Mind, streaming at Bandcamp. In addition to those seven cuts off her previous album, The Origin of Adjustable Things, she’s included an equal number of new songs, totaling a very generous fourteen tracks filled with vivid and often haunting imagery, double entendres, clever wordplay and a poignantly melancholy sensibility. She’ll be airing them out at the album release show on July 31 at 7 PM at National Sawdust; advance tix are $25

As on the previous record, Wallfisch plays piano and ukulele, joined by Dan Tepfer on piano (and melodica, very memorably, on one track) along with the Sacconi Quartet: violist Robin Ashwell, cellist Pierre Doumenge, and violinists Ben Hancox and Hannah Dawson. Wallfisch opens the album with the distantly creepy, twinkling art-rock lament Moons of Jupiter, awash in gusts and ripples that border on the macabre. “Even through the fall of Troy the stars were shining, but you had to walk away,” Wallfisch intones. It wouldn’t be out of place in the Universal Thump catalog. Likewise, Wallfisch goes deep into the underlying angst in the album’s first cover, Joni Mitchell’s All I Want, reinvented as a brooding ballad for strings and voice.

The album’s title track manages to be both jauntily vaudevillian and cruelly hilarious, evoking Honor Finnegan in a darkly theatrical moment: the UK-born Wallfisch’s depiction of the New York City subway is priceless. Apprehensively creaky string harmonics open Satellite, a return to morosely starlit art-rock with a tinge of wee-hours saloon blues. The lillting melody of the requiem Distant Shores almost but not quite masks Wallfisch’s gently shattering, pain-wrenched narrative, “The tears much clearer than the blur of mine.”

As she does with many of the songs here, Wallfisch’s piano takes brief, gentle yet almost heart-stopping detours toward outright menace in another elegaic ballad, Anonymous Journeys. After the mostly-instrumental Patience, a cavatina for strings, she keeps the waltzing rainy-day atmosphere going throughout Satin Grey and its understated portrait of the consequence of a missed connection, recalling an Edith Piaf number.

This Is How You Make Me Feel, with its echo phrases and shifting rhythms, blends disquieting indie classical and jazz, a portrait of a relationship with highs to match the lows. The second of the cover tunes, Tim Buckley’s Song to a Siren gets Wallfisch’s most tender vocal here. Wallfisch has a thing for paradoxes, and Rational Thought gives her a platform for a whole slew of clever ones: “Statistics never took into account who to count on,” she reminds. The carousel theme Brighton Beach is full of musical surprises and far more sheer horror than the previously recorded version. The album winds up with a brief reprise of All I Want. Counting Wallfisch’s originals alone, this is one of the half-dozen best releases of 2016.

Fun fact: Wallfisch is third cousin to Paul Wallfisch, the iconic noir pianist and Botanica bandleader.

Carol Lipnik Hangs a Star in the Heavens at Joe’s Pub

Considering the rapt, otherworldly ambience that singer Carol Lipnik likes to create onstage, there’s always some kind of magic in the ether. But even by her bewitching standards, this past week’s first installment of her three-Thursday March residency at Joe’s Pub was a special kind of sorcery. She and her new trio – longtime pianist Matt Kanelos joined by his longtime collaborator Kyle Sanna on lead guitar and keyboards – had opened with a deep-space cover of Harry Nilsson’s Lifeline, evoking an anguish and desolation unmatched even by the original..

Expanding on a key line from the song, Lipnik asked the crowd, “Is there anybody out there?” Laughter was their first response. Afterward, when she scampered out into the audience with her mic at the end of Tom Ward’s Spirits Be Kind to Me, there was no joke in how almost instinctively they sang along with her vocalese, in harmony, even.

And kept that ghostly “oooooh” going into the next song: Michael Hurley’s The Werewolf. All of a sudden the singalong had new dimension. Was this suddenly supposed to be creepy, or mysterious, or coyly funny? All of the above, maybe. That’s Lipnik at the top of her enigmatic game, always allowing for fun but also for 180 degrees from that.

Like the longingly elegaic title track from her most recent album, Almost Back to Normal, which gave her one of many opportunities to go to the stratospheric top of her four-octave range. She’d written that, and much of the album, in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. “It’s not like you can go back to normal…whatever that might be,” she cautioned the crowd.

Decked out in a slinky black lace dress and shimmery vintage silverplate necklace, dark brown eyes glistening and intent under sharp auburn bangs, she swayed, and shimmied a little during a drolly hilarious, Klaus Nomi-influenced goth-opera cover of The Twist. More than once, she stood tall and then gently hung invisible stars from the sky, mirroring the elusively distant places her voice would travel to, along with the hope and longing in her darkly allusive songs.

Kanelos is a polymath pianist and a masterful, meticulous accompanist. He and Lipnik have a rare chemistry, her vibrato modulating in perfect time with his steady, resonantly Schubertian phrasing throughout their hour onstage, when he wasn’t taking wit-infused detours into saloon blues, acerbic downtown jazz or lingering Keith Jarrett-like phrases. Sanna is the rare guitarist who knows that less is more and that in this project, especially, every note counts. When he wasn’t providing methodically propulsive jangle, carefully considered fingerpicking or judiciously minimalist accents, he was adding coolly low-key washes of synth for dub-like atmosphere.

Lipnik ended the set with a brand-new number, My Piano – as in “My piano was once a tree” – taking a steady, mysterious climb upwards, one note at a time, until it seemed that there was no high note that her voice couldn’t hit. Listening back to the show, that high note appears to be Eb above Eb above Eb above middle C – but you know how recordings sometimes aren’t pitch-perfect. Wouldn’t it be a thrill if Lipnik could come out of this month’s residency with a live album to show for it? She’s back at Joe’s Pub on March 10 and 17 at 7:30 PM; cover is $16.

Two Sides of Iconic Trumpeter Frank London, Live and on Record

It makes sense that Frank London’s Klezmer Brass All-Stars would headline the finale of this year’s NY Gypsy Festival, starting at 7:30 PM on October 4 at the Schimmel Center at Pace University on Spruce St. in the financial district. The iconic trumpeter had already established himself in Balkan music before co-founding the original New York klezmer punk band, the Klezmatics. Since then, London has lent his firepower, wit and erudition to innumerable projects. One of the most quietly impactful and historically rich ones is Italian-born singer Shulamit’s album For You the Sun Will Shine: Songs of Women in the Shoah, which came out late last year. It marks the first release of the work of four women songwriters who chronicled their harrowing experiences, imprisoned during the Holocaust. One survived, two others were murdered, and the fourth is assumed to have perished as well. As you would expect, this is one of the most surreal and chilling albums ever made.

London and pianist Shai Bachar co-produced the album – four of whose tracks are streaming at Shulamit’s music page – recasting these pieces as art-songs. Bachar brings both a neoromantic plaintiveness and also a sense of the macabre that he uses delicately to raise the surrealistic factor. Big Lazy’s Yuval Lion supplies spare, purposeful percussion on a handful of tracks. Shulamit sings in German and Czech with equal amounts expressivneess and restraint: the common link among these songs is a crushing hope against hope.

The songwriter whose work is featured most prominently here is Ilse Weber, a popular Czech broadcaster and children’s author murdered alongside one of her sons in the gas chamber at Auschwitz in 1944..What’s most striking, aside from the heartwrenching, plainspoken lyrical content, is how diverse her songwriting is. London’s bright, blue-sky lines and Bachar’s stately piano channel a distant parlor-pop charm that makes a crushing contrast with the songs’ theme; at times, the band will mirror the crushing sarcasm of her lyrics with a faux-celebratory, martial Teutonic beat. But the forced-march courage quickly gives way to a muted horror, through the twisted I Wander Through Thersienstadt, the Satie-esque lament And the Rain Keeps Falling and a couple of lullabies, one of them an attempt to marshal some calm amidst the horror, and one that doesn’t try to mute the reality of the circumstances under which it was written.

The Czech-born Ludmila Peskarova, who survived and lived to 97, is represented by two tracks. There’s a sad Christmas-day tableau from the Ravensbruck camp, and Moravia, Moravia, the most ghostly and otherworldly song here, evoking an ancient cantorial ambience.

The most savagely sarcastic, despairing number is The Auschwitz Song, attributed to one Camilla Mohaupt, whose fate is unclear. It’s a cover of a 1920 Dutch pop hit with new lyrics reflecting hopelessness and sheer horror amid the squalor. There’s also an ornately classically-tinged miniature with music by Polish composer Carlo Taube and lyrics by his wife Erika: “As long as you aren’t bound by the word ‘home,’ your heart will be free,” a mother explains to her child. These days, one can only wonder how many of the Syrian war refugees feel the same way.

London’s show on Sunday with his band and singer Eleanor Reissa wraps up a tremendous night of music that starts at 7:30 with the Underground Horns, who veer from the Balkans to the Mediterranean to New Orleans, then the similarly eclectic, Ellington and hip-hop-influenced Slavic Soul Party, then the punk-inspired Hungry March Band, the only group on this bill so far to play Madison Square Garden. Considering what you get, cover is a reasonable $20.

Rachelle Garniez Stuns and Seduces the Crowd at Pangea

Many cognoscenti in the New York music scene consider Rachelle Garniez the best songwriter in town, and some would argue that she she might simply be the best songwriter anywhere. A couple of nights ago at Pangea she bolstered that argument, playing to a rapt and wildly appreciative hometown crowd in a duo show with bassist Tim Luntzel. Despite having to sit because he was in a walking cast, he supplied terse, elegantly elastic lines to anchor Garniez’s acerbic, erudite, occasionally feral playing as she alternated between acoustic guitar, accordion and piano.

As a performer, Garniez is devastatingly funny, although her songs often pack a wallop that comes from the opposite end of the emotional spectrum. One of her favorite tropes is to introduce them via slow, contemplative, frequently psychedelic intros that give her a launching pad for deviousy surrealist, deadpan humor that seems completely fresh and off-the-cuff but is actually more thoroughly composed than anyone realizes. What varies from show to show is the punchlines: it’s impossible to think of anyone who has as much fun flying without a net as Garniez.

And there’s always something relevant lurking behind the jokes. What seemed like it would be blissed-out musings on deep-forest beauty turned in a split second into caustic commentary on global warming…which then introduced a sly, vamping, bluesy stripper theme. That one she played on accordion, accenting the song with some unexpected horror on the low end and then a coyly sinister flatline motif at the very end. Likewise, she painted a dreamy early morning riverside scenario and then flipped the script, tying it into the perils of gentrification. That led into the metaphorically slashing if gently waltzing Tourmaline, the semi-precious gem in the title a metaphor for all things not quite perfect, or accepted, embellished with Garniez’s usual umpteem levels of meaning. As Garniez tells it, anyone who might dis you for having something in common with that stone “Is only just snow on your screen.”

Playing piano, she made the connection between Facebook and crack cocaine (Garniez is equally disdainful of both) in the gospel-tinged God’s Little Acre, an unrepentant kiss-off from a former party animal who’s been tracked down (or stalked) by a fling from a past decade. And in a bouncy, blackly amusing new one, just bass and vocals, she explained that at her funeral, she doesn’t want any ordinary Cadillac hearse: she wants an El Camino instead. How many other songwriters would identify a funeral flower car by its make and model, never mind using that image as a metaphor?

Beyond an irresistibly funny, sarcastically operatic shout-out to Jean-Claude Van Damme and his  endorsements for antidepressants, the best song of the night was a starkly baroque-tinged new guitar song inspired by her European tourmate Kyrie Kristmanson. Yet again, Garniez filled in the details of what would seemingly turn out to be a comfortable, sympathetic portrait of an old lady and her tchotchkes…but revealed the source of the money funding all the decor as “The bludgeon and blade.”

And she is New York to the core. Feeding off the crowd’s energy, she wound up the set with People Like You, which opens as an uneasiy and ambiguous Far Rockaway reminiscence, then takes on a blithe, boppy Rickie Lee Jones bounce before Garniez drops the artifice and bares her fangs, in a withering sendup of gentrifier status-grubbing:

It’s people like you who don’t know pride from shame
It’s people like you who always stay one step ahead of the game
It’s people like you who never place a face before a name

Then she quoted from Taylor Swift and brought down the house.

Garniez is just as fearless when it comes to having special guests: other vocalists might be intimidated by sharing the stage with singer Carol Lipnik and her otherworldly, soaring four-octave range, but not her. Lipnik and pianist Matt Kanelos delivered plenty of thrills with a spellbinding, melismatic take of Oh, the Tyranny, a hauntingly awestruck track from their new album Almost Back to Normal. A little later, torchy chanteuse Angela McCluskey provided some plaintive intensity of her own in a Billie Holiday-inspired diptych, pianist Paul Cantelon providing brilliant, Debussy-esque ripples and lustre.

Garniez has a long-awaited new album due out on November 13; her next gig is at Barbes on Sept 3 at 8 PM. Lipnik continues her weekly Thursday 7 PM residency at Pangea this month. And McCluskey and Cantelon debut their new dancefloor groove band, Saint Bernadette – with Garniez on accordion – tonight, August 26 at City Winery at 7.