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Ferocious Power Trio Castle Black Put Out One of 2017’s Best Short Albums

In an era when gentrification, the demise of one venue after another and subway closures all down the line at night have landed one crushing blow after another on the New York music scene, Castle Black’s rise to become one of this city’s best bands is as heartwarming as it is improbable. A couple of years ago, they were playing the usual cruddy circuit of bottom-tier venues that most new bands never gain enough traction to leave. Since then, Castle Black have put out a succession of ep’s, each one better than the other and emerged as a relentlessly touring powerhouse.

Armed with a couple of vintage Fenders, guitarist/frontwoman Leigh Celent has grown into a powerful and distinctive player equally at home with noise and melody. Bassist Lisa Low anchors the music with a looming ominousness while drummer Matt Bronner ranges from rapidfire four-on-the-floor punk to doomy metal to the occasional departure into unorthodox meters, holding the beast to the rails. The band’s latest ep, Trapped Under All You Know is streaming at youtube. They’re playing the release show on August 25 at 10 PM at the Well in Bushwick – they’re definitely loud enough to drown out any of the other bands rehearsing in the upstairs rooms there.

The album’s first track, Seeing in Blue kicks off with Bronner’s boomy tom-tom rolls, Celent building an angst-fueled nocturnal scenario with her guitar and her vocals. It’s part Avengers roar and part enigmatic late-period Bush Tetras, with a little Cramps menace. And it’s as catchy as all those references

Broken Bright Star is one of the half-dozen best songs of 2017, hands down. The catchy, doomy opening guitar riff brings to mind the Vice Squad classic Last Rockers, rising to a richly jangly mesh of guitar multitracks on the chorus. The point where the verse suddenly dips down to just Celent’s vocals, and then explodes with a wrathful guitar chord, will give you goosebumps.

Blind Curtain is just as anthemic and catchy: imagine a two-guitar version of Blondie covering mid-80s Husker Du. The album stays in that relentlessly troubled zone with the distantly Joy Division-inflected last cut, Rise, Celent’s roaring, reverbtoned guitar shards flickering through the “shadows as they rise, again and again again.”  Brief as this is,  you’ll see this album on the best of 2017 page here in December if we’re still all here.

Meet Darkly Noisy, Catchy, Up-and-Coming Castle Black

Castle Black are the kind of band you want to catch on the way up. Right now, the power trio are running on inspiration. They’re pushing the limits of their chops, careening through a bunch of styles – oldschool punk, abrasive post-Bush Tetras postpunk and noisy later-period Sleater-Kinney indie aggro, to name a few – on their way to really crystallizing a sound of their own. If this is as far as they get, they’re a lot of fun live. If they keep at it, they’ve got a high ceiling. Both guitarist Leigh Celent and bassist Lisa Low sing; drummer Matt Bronner is the kind of uncluttered rock player a band like this needs. Right now they’re making their way up from crappy venues – their youtube channel has a lot of good live stuff from the odious Bitter End, for example – to good places like Matchless. Their next gig is tomorrow night, December 19 at 8 PM at Leftfield, the old UC Lounge space at 87 Ludlow St. just south of Delancey; cover is $10.

At this early point in their career, they’ve got the tunes, and a consistently dark vision. All a band like this needs to do is keep playing, and grow beyond just playing scales, or noise when just a little something from outside the box would set them apart from the rest of the pack. The stuff at youtube is tantalizingly haphazard. There’s Premonition, which has a sludgy country feel and then picks up steam; the epic Dark Light: A Plague Revisited, with the eerie foreshadowing of its opening hook, to a series of unexpected up-and-down tempo shifts; The Next Big Thing, with its trippy, oscillating white noise and mashup of stoner metal riffage and viciously chugging oldschool punk rumble. Song of Winter is the simplest of the songs, and catchy as it is, sounds like a very early one. Someone Hear Me shuffles and careens along over a noisily embellished blues scale as the cymbals build a hailstorm behind the roar. Doing Time Pass puts a noisier spin on a vintage Gang of Four riff and then goes in a more straight-up direction.

They’ve also got an ep, Find You There, streaming at their music page. The opening track, This Old Town builds from an aching, tense postpunk verse into an ominously lingering chorus, an allusive tale of kicking around a hopeless place where bad accidents happen, and you’re so numbed by the pain that you feel nothing when they do. It’s their best song so far. There are also cleaner studio versions of Doing Time Pass and The Next Thing, plus their funniest number, Psychic Surgery, sort of the early Go-Go’s doing boogie rock.

Looking Forward and Back to a Couple of Tantalizing Album Cover Nights

An allstar cast of downtown New York talent got together this past August 27 at Hifi Bar, where they played Young Marble Giants’ cult favorite 1981 album Colossal Youth – right at the same time that the regrouped original band was doing the exact same thing at Royal Festival Hall in London. It’s not clear if the London show was recorded, but thanks to Elemental Films – who’ve also captured a ton of amazing, rare footage of Molly Ruth, the Shootout Band and many others – the night was immortalized, and you can watch it on youtube!

“In the year 1980, songs like Babe, by Styx and Lady, by Kenny Rogers were at the top of the pops…and this album was happening at the same time, something beautiful and stark and more powerful because it had such a sense of loneliness about it. Becuase of that, it has withstood the test of time. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to listen to Babe – I want to listen to Colossal Youth,“ organizer and Elk City forntwoman Renee Lobue explained with more sincerity than snark.

Without further ado, Lysa Opfer stepped to the mic for Searching for Mr. Right, guitarist Sam Weisberg supplying a spare proto-skronk as bassist Tom Shad held down a similarly stark reggae pulse in tandem with syndrum player Joe Fee. Shad, in particular, had a ball with Philip Moxhan’s incisive, all-over-the-place lines, pretty much note-for-note with the original, for the most part sticking to a biting, trebly tone. On guitar, Weisberg and Andy Wellington beefed up the originals, no surprise since they were using far better amps and a real sound system as opposed to a cheap four-track recorder. Speed the Plough‘s John Baumgartner supplied aptly swirly, noir-tinged organ lines when the songs required them. On the other hand, most of the singers – some of them guys – lent their own original style to the vocals rather than trying to match Alison Stottam’s muted, moody vocal delivery.

But many of those voices were as individualistic as hers, and made these new interpretations every bit as compelling as the originals. Paula Carino‘s assertively velvety vocals on Salad Days beat Stottam at her own game, a real treat. Earlier, Toot Sweet‘s Mary Spencer Knapp ramped up the angst over the stuttering bass and guitars on Constantly Changing. The Bush Tetras’ Cynthia Sley added color and dimension to the title track, and Lobue brightened up The Man Amplifier. Lobue, Carino, Opfer and Verena Wiesendanger joined voices at the end for a bittersweet take of Final Day. Even Hifi owner Mike Stuto – the man stoking the “starmaker machinery behind the unpopular songs,” as Kendall Meade recently put it – made a cameo on the mic midway through The Taxi.

Another cover night that could be off the hook happens this Monday, October 5 at 7:30 PM when a similarly talented cast including jazz and folk noir chanteuse Erica Smith and fiery, gospel-infused belter Lizzie Edwards play Paul McCartney’s Ram album all the way through at Bowery Electric. Shad being one of the masterminds of the Young Marble Giants night, it’s likely that he’ll be a big part of this too, alongside Charly Roth, the rare player who’s equally adept at drums and keyboards, plus a similarly strong band alongside them. Cover is $10.

Young Marble Giants on Both Sides of the Pond

What’s the most unlikely band reunion ever? The Velvet Underground? Or when Pink Floyd got back together for that live tv cameo? How about this August 27 at 7:30 PM, when Young Marble Giants will play their cult favorite 1981 album Colossal Youth at London’s Royal Festival Hall? There’s karmic justice, and no little irony in the fact that thirty-five years after they first broke up, the band are playing one of their biggest gigs ever. What’s probably just as unlikely is that they’d be together to do it at all. £17.50 balcony seats are still available for budget-minded London postpunk fans.

Meanwhile, on this side of the pond, a stellar and similarly unlikely collection of downtown New York rock talent are getting together at the exact same hour at Hifi Bar to play the album in its entirety. Springboarded by Elk City’s Renee LoBue, the performers include folk noir chanteuse Erica Smith, janglerock mastermind Paula Carino, the Bush Tetras’ Cynthia Sley, Toot Sweet‘s acerbic Mary Spencer Knapp, Speed the Plow‘s John and Toni Baumgartner, along with many, many others. This is a gig where there may be as many band members as audience members in the house.

The album itself is quirky, very humbly and rather primitively recorded, and an acquired taste for some. A favorite of college radio dj’s when it came out, it’s considered one of the foundations of lo-fi music in general. As precious and prissy as so much so-called bedroom pop is, it wouldn’t be a stretch to file the record within that genre. Stuart Moxham’s minimalist, tentative guitar and simple yet saturnine keyboards made an apt backdrop for frontwoman Alison Statton’s distinctive, unassuming, low-key vocals, punctuated by Moxham’s brother Philip’s incisive if similarly simple bass work. You can check it out – or revisit fond college dorm memories – at Spotify.

Speaking of performers who’re doing the tribute show, Smith and Knapp most recently shared the stage at 2A at the end of May, on a fantastic quadruplebill with American Ambulance‘s Pete Cenedella and host Monica “L’il Mo” Passin. Passin distinguished herself with her ability to shift seamlessly between innumerable styles, from Brill Building pop, to latin soul, rockabilly, oldschool C&W and rootsy bar-band rock. Her guitar playing was just as eclectic: she’s the rare player who can do a song solo acoustic, stick a solo in the middle and have it seem perfectly natural even without bass and drums.

Knapp’s accordion work was just as diverse, running the gamut from torchy French chanson, to enigmatic bedroom pop (if anybody on this bill really GETS Young Marble Giants, it’s her), ornately theatrical art-rock and an unexpected and very successful detour toward the avant garde. Passin playfully needled Cenedella for his handful of references to ganja, in several numbers from American Ambulance’s cult classic Streets of NYC album, a bittersweet look at uneasy teenage romance in New York in the late 70s. Which was funny, since Cenedella’s blend of twangy Americana and biting Graham Parker-esque proto new wave songcraft is the furthest thing from stoner music.

The star of the show was Smith, who held the audience rapt with a mix of new material and old favorites. As she told the crowd, her songs typically fit into three distinct categories: death songs, seduction songs and despair songs. An unexpectedly seductive number was the chilling, nocturnal Nashville, Tennessee, a stark waltz from Smith’s Snowblind album. Along with similarly spare, plaintive versions of the folk standards Pretty Saro and Wayfaring Stranger, she spun quietly through the wrenchingly poignant River King, a gently swaying, Fairport Convention-ish art-folk number with a knockout punch, a metaphorically loaded tale of snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. She also brought out a handful of new numbers: the night’s most impactful song was a brand-new one, Veterans of Foreign Wars, a brooding, suspensefully enveloping waltz with what could be a chilling allusion to the Eric Garner murder. Although Smith’s imagery is opaque and allusive – that’s the seduction thing going on – so you never know.

And after the four onstage had wrapped up their evening, the irrepressibly charming, ebullient, wickedly tight swing jazz harmony trio the Tickled Pinks lept onstage with their bassist and guitarist and kept the audience on the sunny side of the street with a brief set of standards. “They’re all the same song,” bandleader Karla Rose (of brilliant, psychedelic noir quartet Karla Rose & the Thorns) joked, but all that counterpoint, and all those harmonic leaps all over the place, aren’t exactly easy. But the trio sang as if they’d been doing this all their lives. Which they sort of have.

Passin’s next show upstairs at 2A is this August 30 at 9, where she switches to bass to play with countrypolitan chanteuse Drina Seay‘s fantastic noir-inclined band.

A Rare Two-Night Stand by Legendary Postpunk Pioneers the Bush Tetras

CBGB-era no wave/funk/postpunk pioneers the Bush Tetras are playing a couple of nights on March 29 and 30 at 8 PM at the Slipper Room (the red-curtained strip club at the corner of Stanton and Orchard), of all places, and if you’re planning on going you should get there early: these shows are likely to sell out. After fifteen years in major label limbo, their long-awaited second album, Happy, has been released by RIOR on both vinyl and the usual digital formats. Brilliantly produced by noiserock maven and noted archivist Don Fleming, the album is a lot heavier than you might expect after hearing Too Many Creeps. For anyone lucky enough to have seen the band at, say, Brownies, around the time it was recorded and wondered when we might get a chance to hear studio versions of these songs, it’s a special treat.

It opens with the slow burn of Heart Attack, Pat Place’s guitar resonant and grim, then delivering a mean, minimalist metallic menace, Cynthia Sley’s vocals channeling her usual visceral unease. The second track, Slap, raises the menace factor, setting eerie minor-key janglerock over drummer Dee Pop’s suspenseful groove: “Could you slap me real hard, could you wake me up?” Sley asks plaintively.

Trip turns on a dime from a catchy two-chord funk vamp to snotty, straight-up rock. Nails reverts to the roaring, multitracked blue-flame ambience of the opening cut – what’s cool about this album is that as much as Place does the noisy/atonal thing more succinctly than just about anybody, here she gets to fill out the sound with a lush roar that she doesn’t often get the chance to create onstage.

The hypnotic, echoey instrumental Chinese Afro sets crashing percussion over the tiptoeing bass of Julia Murphy (who by that time had replaced Laura Kennedy in the group, and has since left). It makes a good segue with Pretty Thing, which  takes the atmospherics up a notch for an unexpectedly artsy, Velvets-tinged ambience.

At this point, the album hits a peak and stays there, beginning with You Don’t Know Me, a beefed-up take on the band’s abrasive early-period sound, Place firing off wickedly atonal swirls and macabre chromatics over a tight funk beat. Buckets of Blood works a slow, lingering, distantly menacing 80s jangle, Murphy hovering just underneath, Sley’s angst-ridden vocals overhead. Unlike what the title might suggest, Motorhead keeps the tensely simmering menace going.

Theremin (which actually has a theremin on it) builds from surreal no wave funk to a snarling groove that reminds of what Thalia Zedek and Come were doing around the time this album was made. Likewise, Ocean follows an arc from a hypnotic but harsh backdrop to a paint-peeling guitar workout. The album ends with Swamp Song, an off-kilter riff-rocker that evokes the Chrome Cranks, but funkier, a reminder that the Tetras were constantly evolving and keeping up with what was happening around them in New York. Kind of sad and funny that an album made in 1998 would be one of the best released in 2013 so far.