New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: avi fox-rosen

Catching Up with Avi Fox-Rosen

Avi Fox-Rosen is on a mission to put out the best album of the year – or the twelve best albums of the year. His conceptual album-a-month project, one of the most ambitious jobs anyone in the rock world has taken on lately, doesn’t seem in any danger of slowing down. His initial release in the series got a thumbs-up here back in January and since then the albums have only gotten stronger. Other bands have famously released humungous amounts of music on a single album, or over a short period of time, but by comparison to Fox-Rosen, they’re all cheaters. Most of the songs on the Magnetic Fields’ hundred-song album are about a minute long and three chords at best; Vole’s hundred-song album, the first of its kind, saw them adding their own lyrics to other people’s music (i.e. turning the Clash’s Safe European Home into Greenpoint Pet Food Store).

Fox-Rosen, on the other hand, writes intricately and lyrically in a whole slew of styles, from funk, to oldtimey swing, to snarkily satirical powerpop, to all kinds of art-rock, some of it with pensive shades of the klezmer music he’s immersed himself in over the past few years. If he keeps this project up for the rest of the year, there won’t be another artist in the world who’ll be able to keep pace. Nor has this blog been able to keep up with him. So this is a long overdue look at what he’s been putting out, all as name-your-price releases at his Bandcamp page.

More than anything, Fox-Rosen’s songs are funny. As a guy who makes a living playing guitar – and also plays in Yiddish Princess, who do hair-metal versions of old Jewish songs – he’s learned a vast supply of cheesy riffs and sprinkles them with surprisingly good taste throughout his songs for plenty of laughs. He’s big on satire. The funniest of all the songs on the five albums he’s put out since February is on April’s album (the best of the bunch so far), a spot-on spoof of phony-sensitive Counting Crows style janglerock. The song is titled Plastic Los Angeles: the cynically sentimental lyrics are a hoot, but the music is even funnier. Fox-Rosen not only has the lazy chord voicings down cold, he also has the lazy inflections and amp settings down so cold that you don’t even notice that the song doesn’t have any drums. The rest of that album puts a simmering anger front and center, no surprise since the central theme is stupidity. The other songs include a cruelly hilarious Christian rock parody, an even crueller dis of cluelessly rapt, trendoid web surfers set to fake early 80s disco, a wickedly crude nod to Huey Lewis, a slightly subtler power ballad that references Oasis and a brief spoof of computerized club music.

March’s album is also very funny: it’s about money. Fox-Rosen quotes Hendrix and gets more bombastic from there on the first track, a raised middle finger to an arrogant one-percenter. I Went to College cleverly explores the limited options remaining for a guy with a degree in “esoterica” in the era when “entitlement all came tumbling down,” while All It Takes Is Money alludes to how the world’s oldest profession is a prototype for pretty much every other kind of transaction. Then Fox-Rosen drops the comedy and gets serious with a couple of biting folk-rock anthems: How Sharp Does the Bite Need to Be, a parable of a sleeping village surrounded by wolves, and the bitterly elegant Wish I Could Still Believe.

The theme of May’s album is fairy tales. Jack and the Beanstalk gets retold as a metal spoof, The Emperor’s New Clothes as snarky  power ballad parody, the Ugly Duckling as a snarling mix of klezmer, swing and noir cabaret. Fox-Rosen’s take on Rapunzel makes fun of a gentrifier girl in her highrise, while the funniest track, Don’t Let Go, flips the bird to Oprah-esque top 40 ballads from an unexpectedly diabolical point of view.

February’s album takes a jaundiced look at love, “A word you have to say so you don’t hurt the feelings of people who like to say it more than you….love is the biggest pain in your ass,” Fox-Rosen complains. A swinging country shuffle, a pensive art-pop song, a jaunty swing number, a garage rock tune and a creepy carnivalesque take on what the Beatles did with When I’m 64 round it out: it’s the most straightforward of all the albums so far.

This month’s album is about teen angst, and once again Fox-Rosen is heavy on the parody. Second-generation Chuck Berry by bands like Rockpile, Henry Mancini-style boudoir pop and 80s synth-pop each get a good spoof, followed by an unexpectedly serious, Beatlesque folk-pop song and a sexy new wave tune titled Cyanide. This time around, Fox-Rosen takes teenage lyrics by Heather Warfel Sandler, Leah Koenig and Sarah Zarrow and sets them to music for the final three tracks. It’s going to be a lot of fun to see what he has in mind for July. Throughout the series, Fox-Rosen plays most of the stringed instruments – guitars, bass and mandolin as well as keys – with contributions from several drummers as well as Michael Winograd and Dave Melton on keys plus Patrick Farrell on accordion and Alec Spiegelman adding some excellent clarinet and sax on the June edition.

The Avi Fox-Rosen Album-a-Month Marathon Is Off and Running

Musicians and athletes have a lot in common. One is a fascination with marathons and milestones. Take the album with the most songs on it, for example. Most people think that the Magnetic Fields set that record, but in fact there was another group who beat them to the hundred-song album: comedic Williamsburg band Vole. Then there are songwriting and recording marathons. Steve Wynn did a song a month for a year; cellist Emily Hope Price did a song a day for a month. Now songwriter/guitarist Avi Rox-Rosen is taking the concept to the next level. His game plan is to release an ep a month for all of 2013, a titanic enterprise. But he’s off to a good start with the first one, streaming at his Bandcamp page and available as a name-your-price download.

His 2009 album Welcome to the Show worked a wickedly smart, darkly theatrical Steely Dan-esque funk-rock vein, and this new album is just as deviously clever and funny. He’s not phoning this stunt in, at least not yet (he may have a bunch more songs ready to go than the average songwriter, considering that he plays in more than one band and has written for the theatre). There’s a dark undercurrent to much of this, a brooding contemplation of getting older and not liking it one bit.

The first track is a fun one, an amusingly allusive soul/funk number titled Fuck Yeah, Balkan/Americana chanteuse Eva Salina Primack turning in a torchy performance as one-woman soul choir. Baby seems to be a tender acoustic lullaby, but quickly gets very funny – it’s a sardonic return-to-the-womb scenario. And you’d probably prefer an enemy to the schadenfreude-obsessed friend in the catchy folk-rock shuffle Great Expectations.

Another Man’s Life makes a wry muscial joke on the theme of spinning one’s wheels, while Snow reminds of an acoustic Led Zep number. Arguably the best, and creepiest tune here is the gypsy-tinged, trippy, surreal Misdated Checks. The last song, Champagne Dreams, falls flat – it’s a perfectly pleasant, Levon Helm-ish piano pop ballad, nothing you haven’t heard before. Watch Fox-Rosen’s Bandcamp site for a second and hopefully many subsequent installments.

Troubled Transcendence: Daniel Kahn & the Painted Bird at Lincoln Center

When you think about it, noir cabaret music is basically klezmer. Which is no surprise when you consider that so many of the songwriters in Weimar Germany and further east were Jewish. Berlin-based songwriter Daniel Kahn takes that tradition and updates it, with one eye on the past and the other on a very uncertain future. Kahn’s music transcends any label, Jewish or otherwise: it is cosmopolitan in every sense of the word. His dissidents always have their bags packed and ready go to. They expect to be surveilled, whether by the narc next door with his ear on a glass pressed to the wall, or by a spycam. His songs celebrate defiance and rebellion, with the hope for a better future that anchors all true revolutions. Loaded with puns, multiple levels of meaning and an often crushing irony, one of their most persistent themes is that if we forget the past, we’re doomed to repeat it in all its colossal ugliness. Sunday at Lincoln Center Out of Doors, Kahn and a pickup band consisting of Avi Fox-Rosen on Telecaster, Benjy Fox-Rosen on bass, the Klezmatics’ Richie Barshay on drums and Michael Winograd on clarinet ran through a riveting mix of songs that drew on traditions dating back decades if not centuries, yet which are completely in the here-and-now.

Kahn opened the show with an ominous wash of minor chords from his accordion, slowly launching into the song in Yiddish before switching to English for the chorus. Over a steady, pensive sway, Kahn told the tale of a Depression-era Robin Hood, the King of the Thieves who in the end is “sick from the streets, from the prison walls, but on his gravestone, etched in gold, he should have his story told.” They followed that with The Good Old Bad Old Days, a richly lyrical look at ostalgie, the ambiguous sentimentality for the utter predictability of the Berlin Wall era held by some Germans of a certain age. As he did with many of the songs, Winograd lit it up with a biting, aching clarinet solo, Kahn recounting how now the vendors along the “border that cuts through the town like a surgical scar” are Turkish, the watches they sell actually work, and that there’s now a market where a musician can “keep the esthetic ‘cliches,’ in this market of fleas, selling klezmer cd’s for the good old bad old days.”

“Prepare for your inner emigration,” Kahn warned on a briskly shuffling number that chronicled a couple of girls who decided not to leave after all: a Berlin cabaret dancer who won’t give up her old haunts, then a kibbutznik who falls in love with a Palestinian and tries to win over his family, with dismal results. So, “They thought about leaving to visit her cousin David in Michigan…but David wanted to marry his boyfriend, so they were moving to Berlin,” Kahn deadpanned. Emigration is a state of mind, after all: it may make you absolutely paranoid, but as he hinted, that might be a small price to pay. After that, Kahn put down his accordion for a ukulele and ran through a misty, nocturnally Americana-flavored Woody Guthrie homage, picturing the songwriter away from his Mermaid Avenue home, entertaining the troops while his wife waits anxiously for his return.

The most haunting song of the afternoon was Sunday After the War. Kahn recounted how he’d started writing it after the Iraq war had begum, and that it was unfortunate that he didn’t finish it after the war – and that it’s a song that he needs to keep singing. A slow, harrowing dirge, Kahn offered to “pay for your sorrow if you pay for mine,” ending with the sobering reality that “they’re always recruiting after the war.” From there the band took an unexpected and very successful detour into reggae and then pensive, Pink Floyd-tinged art-rock with a couple of reflections on Zionist and Palestinian nationalist points of view, watching idealistic settlers “coming to Judea with a shovel and a gun.” They closed with a bouncy, snarling klezmer-punk anthem “”written for Occupy Wall Street in Poland sometime in the 1920s.” A sarcastic call to “join the jobless corps…let the yuppies have their wine, bread and water suits us fine,” it was an apt way to close the show. Over the past few years, the Lincoln Center Out of Doors festival has had some absolutely brilliant shows, from Dave Brubeck to Laurie Anderson last year: this one ranks with the most memorable of them.

Even More Live Chronicles

This is an attempt to get caught up on some of the more intriguing live shows of (relatively) recent days, beginning with the klezmerfest at Central Park Summerstage exactly two weeks ago. Why so late on this? Great albums have been coming in over the transom left and right. Besides, none of the groups chronicled here have broken up (let’s hope not, anyway), so you’ll have plenty of opportunities to see them if you’re in town and they’re your type of thing.

The klezmerfest, co-sponsored by the Workmen’s Circle, featured a mix of familiar and not-so-familiar faces playing Jewish music from across the diaspora and the decades that was alternately playful, haunting and powerfully insightful. The high point of the evening was Daniel Kahn, leader of klezmer group the Painted Bird, which in this particular instance was something of a pickup band. But they rose to the occasion. Kahn’s songs are intense, historically aware and rich with irony, and his brooding, sardonic delivery and stage presence enhance those songs’ power. He sang several numbers first in Yiddish and then in English, opening solo on pizzicato violin and harmonica with the first song he ever translated, an early 60s Broadside-style folk tune about “how we reap what greed is sowing,” taking considerable pride that the late musicologist Adrienne Cooper had given it her seal of approval. He switched to piano and was then joined by the band for a raging, gorgeously caustic tune about a “king of the thieves,” dismissing “all you people sick from being fed,” memorializing somebody “sick from the streets, sick from the prison walls,” but “on his gravestone etched in gold he should have his story told.” It was the high point of the night. Electric guitarist Avi Fox-Rosen then came up and added a scorching solo to a klezmer-punk song that Kahn wryly explained was about “the lumpenproletariat at odds with the petit bourgeoisie.” They closed on a bitter, elegaic note with Sunday After the War, a haunting, utterly defeated waltz, Kahn adding especially intense emphasis to the line “they always recruit after the war.” That song may have been written in the wake of the Iraq war, but its message was timeless. Kahn and band play outdoors on the back plaza at Lincoln Center on August 12 at 1 PM.

The Klezmatics preceded Kahn onstage. The original klezmer punks have a somewhat different lineup these days (and a monstrously good double live album from the Town Hall released last year), but their music is just as timeless. Trumpeter Frank London led them through a blazing, swaying minor-key opener, then accordionist Lorin Sklamberg – whose voice has mellowed like a good slivovitz over the years – took over the mic on a London arrangement of Woody Guthrie’s Mermaid Avenue, the Coney Island street where “the lox meets the pickle and the sour meets the sweet,” where you might see the occasional shark, but no mermaids. They wrapped up their unexpectedly short set with a sad, bitingly satirical number about how the Russian Tsar prefers his tea, then a lickety-split “antifascist love song” (he’s in Brooklyn, missing his sweetheart back in the old country) and then a rousing singalong with the message that we’re all brothers and sisters in this mess.

Strangely, at least as far as the first part of the show was concerned, the longest set came from the comedic Yiddish Princess, where many of the folks who’d backed Kahn switched instruments or styles and played satirical hair-metal versions of klezmer and old Jewish pop hits. Their frontwoman can’t really sing, but that’s part of the joke. Fox-Rosen paired off with fellow axemeister Yoshie Fruchter for an endless series of tongue-in-cheek twin solos and metal duels over the canned swoosh of the string synthesizer. Their incessant barrage drove a lot of the alte kockers out of the arena, but the kids loved them.

A theatre troupe opened the evening with a series of songs illustrating the deep cross-pollination between American black and Jewish music early in the past century. As educational as their presentation was – for example, you knew that Cab Calloway ripped off a klezmer hit for Minnie the Moocher, right? – the stagy presentation and generically legit, Broadwayesque vocals dragged down the eclectic mix of songs. And the headliner, a so-called rapper, seemed to be gung-ho on being sort of a Jewish-specific version of Beck. That we don’t need: the Scientologists can keep that guy.

A shout-out to Walter Ego, the sharp, cleverly lyrical rocker who played a solo show at Otto’s the following Saturday night, switching from guitar to piano and then back again in an often savagely witty mix of catchy, sometimes Beatlesque tunes. He surprised with a couple of new ones, one a Dead Kennedys-style punk number, another an uneasy minor-key blues, along with the chillingly metaphorical dirge I Am the Glass, the John Lennon-esque piano anthem Big Life and the LOL-funny Adventures of Ethical Man, a comic book hero hell-bent on doing the right thing…sort of.

And then this past Saturday, Kelli King and Lorraine Leckie treated the crowd at the National Underground to tantalizingly brief sets. King sang her bitingly catchy Americana rock and country/blues songs beautifully, in a nuanced voice that was equal parts jazz sophistication and country sugar, backed by an excellent lefty bassist and a guitarist whose uneasy psychedelic guitar chops made a great match with the songs even if he sometimes didn’t know where to stop. And Leckie – whom you’ll be hearing more about here shortly – took her time with a handful of coldly sarcastic Canadian gothic rock tunes that she played solo on guitar. Her collaboration with Anthony Haden-Guest is already starting to pay dividends in terms of songs, and she brought the characters twistedly to life – the alienated old couple in the cruelly titled Bliss, the starstruck ingenue Little Miss X, and the bewildered one-percenter of Rudely Interrupted, all of those brand-new tunes. At one point, when Leckie hit the end of a chorus, she simply refused to let go of the last note and sang it out to the point where she didn’t seem she’d ever let it go. It was an unexpectedly dramatic moment in an otherwise quietly intense set.

To wrap up the last couple of weeks, concertwise, not everything was this good. It would have been nice if those ageless reggae guys from the 70s had focused on their good songs instead of their poppy stuff at their outdoor concert downtown the day after the klezmer show; then again, once a cover band, always a cover band. And the day after that, it would have been ideal if the organizers could have moved the outdoor concert by that Ellington alum and his band indoors: those old vets still have their chops, but the heat stifled them. Then again, a group half their age would have been affected just as adversely.