New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Tag: cabaret music

A Creepy, Tasty Treat From Orphan Jane’s Enigmatic Accordionist

Today’s Halloween album – streaming at Bandcamp – is The Sugar Man, the debut release by Timatim Fitfit, the mostly-solo side project by multi-keyboardist Montana Slim, a.k.a. Tim Cluff of creepy noir cabaret band Orphan Jane. It’s a good, weird, disturbing ride.

The opening track is a quavery romp through Walking Stick, a Freudian hokum blues. Cluff takes the album title from the lyric, a sardonic 1920s reference to a guy left out in the cold, literally speaking. Irving Berlin appropriated the song and made it much more coyly funny: this one’s disquieting in a C.W. Stoneking vein. Orphan Jane guitarist Old Man Shorty, a.k.a. Dave Zydallis guests on it; Cluff plays accordion and saloon piano.

The second track is Living in the City, a stabbing parlor pop tune, John Cale mashed up with the Handsome Family:

Taxidermies in your basement
Smell of borax fills the room
I wish I could be resurrected
Like a little grey loon
There are pigeons all around me
They don’t give a shit
If I survive
Or if I drown in it

Feelin’ Good is a twisted, phantasmagorical stroll with echoes of Thelonious Monk. With its funereal organ, glockenspiel and cynical, politically spot-on narrative, the tiptoeing waltz Arctic of Men could be a Tom Warnick tune. Cluff follows that with the even more sarcastic, ragtime-tinged War Machine, Zydallis’ ominously tremoloing guitar soaring overhead. Then Seeders and Leachers reaches for the phantasmagorical scamper of their main band.

Down the Fells is a lush, Celtic-tinged ballad as John Cale might have done  it on Paris 1919. The surreal tale Flowers By the Door has some deliciously wistful accordion. The album’s funniest and strangest track is Dog in a Manger, a slowly waltzing robot’s dilemma: in a dystopian nightmare, humans aren’t the only ones who suffer.

The album winds up with the morosely oldtimey Another Shitty Day, and then Low Batteries, a desperate escape anthem that’s the album’s least stylized and most genuinely creepy track.

Fun fact: if you’re wondering what the band name means, it’s sort of the Ethiopian equivalent of fattoush. 

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A Twistedly Relevant, Phantasmagorical Evening in Brooklyn with Orphan Jane

Orphan Jane brought a good crowd to the Knitting Factory Wednesday to watch them pounce and scamper through a tantalizingly brief, lurid set of noir cabaret and circus rock – on a night when the L train was shutting down early. Considering that their motley fans don’t seem like an Uber crowd – they’re a pretty diverse bunch – that’s all the more impressive.

What was most impressive was frontwoman Jessica Underwood AKA The Girl with No Name’s vocals. In the band’s early days, she worked a sardonically brassy, vampy persona. These days she’s Pirate Jenny on steroids. With her wide-angle vibrato, glass-shattering wail, razor bangs and crimson dress, she channeled pure menace. Guitarist Old Man Shorty (Dave Zydallis) and bassist The Gravedigger (Robert Desjardins) slunk and scurried and stabbed as singer Montana Slim (Tim Cluff) spun eerie Balkan-tinged minor-key chords from his accordion.

Underwood’s arioso firestorm rose over creepy, spiky artful-dodger guitar, red neon accordion waves and nonchalantly menacing chromatic trumpet from Daria McBean (Caitlin Featherstone) as the the first number got underway. “We don’t want a thing from you” became a sarcastic mantra. They followed with a twisted tale about a guy trying to pick up (very) underage girls – it’s their Aqualung, and also turned out to be the most Gogol Bordello-ish number of the night. As expected, Underwood took it way up to the rafters at the end.

The most straightforwardly murderous song of the night was Creepy Little Town, Underwood switching out the theatrics for raw evil, Zydallis’ stark monster-movie riffage anchoring its noir blues sway. They went back to the noir cabaret for the slashingly sarcastic The Banker, rising form a suspensefully tiptoeing intro to a big swinging harmony-fueled chorus. Cluff’s role in this band is sort of good cop to Underwood’s very bad one: “I’d prefer not” became his recurrent theme.

The next song, Diamonds and Caviar, was an unexpectedly Tex-Mex flavored conspicuous-consumption satire. The vernacular may have been Weimar, but the band definitely had the spend-and-Instagram crowd in their sights. “I can’t forget my mother, to hell with all the others,” Underwood snarled; “There will be clothes” was the mantra. The followed that with Strong – a fiery, towering female-empowerment anthem, with the HipSits’ Cherrye Davis and Kathleen Fletcher supplying spot-on satanic gospel harmonies – and then closed with the murderous Gatsby-gone-awry anthem The Mansion Song, the best and most cinematic narrative from their 2016 A Poke in the Eye album, Underwood unable to resist throwing a dis at Jared Kushner as it got underway. Kurt Weill, look at the monster you created. 

Haunting Singer Carol Lipnik’s East Village Residency Takes On New Relevance

This past Sunday evening at Pangea, Carol Lipnik reached for the rafters, with her voice and with her hand, as if trying to pull stars from the sky. It wasn’t as if she was imploring some unseen force, but there was a quiet desperation as her four-octave voice rose to the stratosphere. Behind her, Matt Kanelos built a twilit mist of electronics and then played steady, lustrous neoromantic piano chords to anchor his longtime collaborator’s uneasy flights upward.

“We’ve fallen backward into a strange abyss of imperfection,” Lipnik mused, in between songs. Iridescent in a shimmery midnight blue dress, she addressed the ugly events of the past week with grim understatement. “Our pleasure ship has hit an iceberg. My life raft is made of paper, and my oar, a pen…my song is a torn sail, my voice the ripping wind.” Much as Lipnik’s performances, and especially her lyrics, can be both hilarious and heartwrenching, this was out of character.

Then again, we’ve all been wrenched from our comfort zones. Calmly and matter-of-factly, Lipnik built a dynamic intensity that rose and fell, laced with dark punk rock humor and ominous nature imagery. The fun stuff included a leap to the rafters with a boisterous cover of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ I Put a Spell on You that its author would no doubt have been proud of. Lipnik channeled Klaus Nomi in a phantasmagorical version of The Twist. She drew the most feverish applause when she introduced a famous 60s cabaret-rock hit. “The Barnum and Bailey circus is going out of business, Lipnik explained. “Now there’s a new circus in town. Let’s all drink to the death of a clown!” Without further elaboration, the duo onstage brought out every ounce of creepiness in Dave Davies’ metaphorically-loaded circus narrative. Later, the two brought out far more angst than hope in a relentlessly steady take of Leonard Cohen’s Anthem.

The most bittersweet number of the night was a brand-new, rather elegaic collaboration with David Cale titled A History of Kisses. The most apt for the moment was an insistent minor-key art-rock anthem titled Beast Bird, a familiar bestiary facing an even more familiar peril. An elegantly surreal “torch song to a wild goose,” a disquietingly airy take of Goddess of Imperfection – Lipnik’s theme song for her ongoing Pangea residency – and the allusive eco-disaster parable My Piano (which was a tree in a past life) completed the picture. Lipnik’s weekly Sunday shows in the sonically exquisite back room at this comfortable East Village boite are almost as legendary as her vocal range; the show continues this Sunday, Feb 5 at around 7 PM.

Midway through the show, Lipnik brought up Witchfinder Witch, the brand-new duo collaboration between Dennis Davison, frontman of LA psychedelic rock legends the Jigsaw Seen and folk noir songstress Lorraine Leckie, who were making their Manhattan debut. She delivered a cute singalong about legendary Lower East Side dive Mars Bar; he held the crowd rapt with The Unhappiest Man Under the Sun with Leckie on piano, a song that no doubt spoke for a lot of people in the crowd.

Hannah Vs. the Many Release the Best Rock Record of 2016

For the past five years or so, Hannah Vs. the Many have earned a reputation for incendiary live shows and brilliant albums equally informed by noir cabaret, punk, art-rock and theatre music, with a dash of magic realism. Frontwoman/multi-instrumentalist Hannah Fairchild might not just be the best songwriter in New York: she might be the best songwriter anywhere in the world. Her torrential volleys of lyrics have stiletto wit, sardonic and often savage double entendres, and a towering angst that sometimes boils over into raw wrath. While her writing reflects elements of purist Carl Newman powerpop, epic Paul Wallfisch grandeur and Neko Case noir, she’s a stronger and more eclectic writer than any of them with the possible exception of the Botanica frontman. Her wounded wail is one of the most riveting and dramatic voices in New York as well. Originally a keyboardist, she was writing brooding acoustic guitar songs almost from the moment she first picked up the instrument, then pulled a band together and the rest is history.

Their debut, All Our Heroes Drank Here, made the shortlist of the best albums of 2012 here; the follow-up, Ghost Stories ranked high on that list two years later. Their latest release, Cinemascope, draws its inspiration from classic film from over the decades. In terms of vast lyrical scope, genre-defying sophistication and sheer catchiness, it’s the best rock record of the year (caveat: Karla Rose & the Thorns have one in the can that hasn’t hit yet). Hannah Vs. the Many are playing the album release show at around 9 this Saturday, Nov 19 at Bushwick Public House at 1288 Myrtle Ave; the closest train is the M to Central Ave.

The opening track, Smoke Is Rising begins as a pensive art-rock ballad, Fairchild adding a jazz tinge with her piano, and builds to a noisy metallic inferno. It follows the same arc as the suicide jumper in Fairchild’s similarly searing All Eyes on Me; this one’s about a woman’s self-immolation, and every metaphor that could imply. When Fairchild intones, “You notice me, don’t you?” it’s just as much a condemnation of those who would watch without intervening as it is a cynical comment on depressive self-absorption.

Lovely Resolution blends elements of Nordic valkyrie metal, punk and classic garage rock, carried by Fairchild’s melismatic shriek. It ponders questions of authenticity and motives in revolutionary politics, it’s the most punk track on the album, and it’s a good anthem in this surreal post-election netherworld. And it’s optimistic:

We are the preface of a new day rising
Last year’s hope
This year’s trash
Next year’s gods

Carl Limbacher’s bubbly bass opens the bitter Cameo, a chronicle of a flirtation to rival the crunching cynicism of the Church’s For a Moment We’re Strangers, tense blue-flame jangle giving way to an explosive chorus. Fairchild has written about the inspiration for these songs in a series of poignant, sometimes shockingly revealing blog posts; this one was spiringboarded by a late-night hookup thwarted by too much alcohol.

I won’t be remembered
I won’t be remembered
Curling up and drifting off under blanket statements
Draw near help me fight this chill
Resolutions wearing thin
Morals bending backwards
Don’t stay, only say you will

The skittish new wave that opens The Auteur gives way to stomping, lickety-split punk. Like much of Fairchild’s work, this one casts a cold eye on how men expect women to subsume themselves, how some women do so willingly, and at great expense. It’s also very funny:

Once we’re discovered the question will ever be
Which of us settled for whom?
It’s uninspired at best, another biblical fall
You’re unravelling under surveillance
And now we’ll all place our bets
On if you’ll come when you’re called

The saddest, quietest and most radical change for Fairchild here is Chiaroscuro. It’s a muted country song with a banjo, of all things, a chronicle of a family trip to a Washington, DC historic site as well as the divorce that followed years later, a psychological autopsy of Midwestern stoicism worthy of Upton Sinclair:

Every child becomes a murderer in time
We take our leave of absence and we scatter from our homes
They offer contrast, these killers out of context
Someone else’s brother has been chiseled into stone
Not ours, though.

The hard-charging Hotel Empire, as Fairchild has explained, is the album’s turning point. Up to now, the songs have mainly chronicled women trying to be good. All the narratives after this are from anti-heroines. It’s also the climactic song in a suite inspired by what was probably a horribly abusive real-life relationship. Fairchild uses the plotline from Hitchcock’s Vertigo, from the point of view of the Kim Novak character, as the springboard for this harrowing conclusion. “Go on. I said I’m fine,” is the mantra.

Surrender Dorothy is the key to the album, a lickety-split look at the madonna/whore dichotomy through the prism of high school musicals (Fairchild had quite a successful career as a stage actress while still in her teens). It sounds like Patti Smith backed by the UK Subs:

Cinderella’s sisters tell us
Nothing in the final edit
‘Cause we left them blinded, bled and
Screaming through the rolling credits
Made a mistake, played it straight
How many punchlines til she breaks?
Splitting on seams, no reprieve
What I get is what you see

Max Tholenaar-Maples’ scrambling drums and Fairchild’s distorted guitar keep the punk rock going fulll-throttle in Murder Darling, bookending Wells Albritton’s brief, moody electric piano interlude. It’s another example of Fairchild at her most savagely hilarious and spot-on:

Flash right back to a boy in need of applause
Evading playground taunts
From bright young things with eyes rolled
Beat that track! Daddy said you’re whatever you want
And how that promise haunts

NSFW revisits love-as-war metaphors, both musically and lyrically, shifting between a sarcastic march and wounded jangle:

Curious trend
Isn’t it strange?
What information you chose to retain?
All of my fears, none of my wit
Drape me in jealousy tailored to fit
Lining your walls
Faces you’ve earned
Duchesses hanging themselves on your word
Women of rank I have surpassed

Kopfkino makes a harrowing coda to the album, an actress at the end of her rope in a Holocaust milieu whose ending you can’t see coming, but which brings the song cycle full circle. In terms of sheer ambition, epic grandeur and cruel insight, there’s no other album that’s been released this year that comes close to this one.

Lorraine Leckie and Her Demons Open for Americana Rock Legends the Long Ryders at Bowery Ballroom

One of the year’s most highly anticipated twinbills is this coming Nov 10 at 9 PM, when eclectic songwriter Lorraine Leckie and Her smoldering Demons open for the Long Ryders, who pretty much invented Americana rock back in the 80s. They haven’t played New York in this century, or for that matter, toured the US in almost thirty years. Their four-cd career retrospective, Final Wild Songs – which includes a stampeding live set recorded in Europe – is just out this year. This concert features the classic late 80s Long Ryders lineup of Sid Griffin on guitar and vocals, Stephen McCarthy on guitar, Tom Stevens on bass and Greg Sowders on drums. $20 advance tix are still available as of today.

Leckie’s most recent fullscale New York show was a rare smalll-club gig back in June at Pangea, a momentary homecoming sandwiched between European and US tours. As much as this was more low-key than she typically is on a big stage, the set was no less fiery for being somewhat quieter and a lot more intimate. She and a scaled-down version of the Demons – Hugh Pool on lead guitar and Tim Kuhl on cajon and percussion – opened with a hushed, seethingly waltizng take of Little Miss X, a sarcastic portrait of a bimbo du jour. From there the band made their way through a stripped-down version of the T Rex-ish Rainbow and then the rousing anthem Paint the Towns, Pool’s tersely resonant lines channeling 60s Memphis soul.

Kuhl pushed the sardonic nocturne Happy City along with a trip-hop groove, Leckie switching from Telecaster to piano. “When I go, I leave a scar,” she intoned with an understated, gleeful menace in Come A-Dancing, then gave an airy vocalese intro to a wickedly catchy, slinky, minor-key new number, Shake Off the Devil, Kuhl again supplying a clickety-clack trip-hop rhythm.

Leckie is hard to categorize – one minute she’s wailing through Neil Young-style electric Americana rock, the next she’s using all sorts of strange guitar tunings and playing enigmatically minimalist art-rock. She put the spotlight on that side of her vast repertoire with the propulsively brisk Man Who Walks in the Rain, the acidic, hypnotic waltz Dangerous Friends, and Climb Ya Like a Mountain, a shout-out to the noted mountain climber Aleister Crowley. From there the band shifted gears with another new number, the anthemic vintage 70s Lou Reed-ish Under the Vampire Moon.

The high point of the night, volume and intensity-wise, was another open-tuned guitar number, It Ain’t the Blues, Leckie airing out her powerful low register with the aching “It ain’t the blues, it’s only YOUUUUUU!” chorus. She closed with a couple of snarkly macabre, carnivalesque piano tunes. And electrifying guest singer Carol Lipnik – whose popular 7 PM Sunday evening residency at Pangea is now in its second year – contributed plaintive takes of two Leckie tunes. The highlight was Bliss, with its poignantly misty portrait of an old couple gone irrepairably off the rails, reinvented as an a-cappella showstopper where which Liphik accompanied herself on spoons. She’d brought them from home, she explained after the show, wanting to make sure that she had cutlery in hand that she could play in the same key as the song’s melody.

Murder Ballad Mondays Makes a Mean Return to Fort Greene on the 21st

A monthly residency is a sneaky way to keep your fanbase coming out without stating the obvious, that they could always blow off your show this month and catch you next time around. After all, who can keep track of when the third Thursday of the month is going to fall, other than the band playing that night?

A lot of touring artists use small New York venues as an anchor when they’re here – or as a rehearsal room, basically. Barbes is home base to many of the elite among them, most notably Big Lazy (first Friday of the month at 10) and Rachelle Garniez (first Thursday at 8). There are also a trio of good acts using Sidewalk to keep themselves sharp: guitarist Lenny Molotov’s bitingly lyrical original oldtime swing band the Fascinators (first Saturday at 8), Mac McCarty‘s careening folk noir Kidd Twist Band (first Saturday at 9) and the darkly eclectic, avant garde-inclined Lorraine Leckie (third Friday at 11, including tonight the 18th).

This blog’s favorite monthly residency is Murder Ballad Mondays at Branded Saloon. Like Paul Wallfisch‘s late, lamented Small Beast at the Delancey, it’s blogbait. Any lazy blogger can save himself or herself four or five separate nights out and catch several of the best acts in town all on the same bill on an off night that doesn’t conflict with anything. And it’s become a hit with the local Fort Greene contingent.

Last month’s was a prime example: with cold rain pelting the slush outside, torchy noir singer Ellia Bisker and her guitarslinging Charming Disaster conspirator Jeff Morris packed the place and treated folks to a deliciously lowlit, lurid evening. They used to treat the crowd to at least a short set, but lately they’ve been teasing everybody with just a song or two. This time out their contributions were a slinky version of a shadowy, swing-infused new number with some hilarious rhyme schemes as well as Murderer, Charming Disaster’s signature song of sorts, a coldly wary, subtle cautionary tale reminding that the perfect crime has no witnesses.

Jessi Robertson set the bar high right off the bat. Hauntingly resonant, deeply soul-infused vocals fused with lead guitarist Rony Corcos’ similarly lingering, bluesy lead lines and elegantly jangly phrasing. Part of Robertson’s appeal is that her big crescendos sometimes seem triumphant and celebratory when they’re actually venomous, and their first song was a prime example. They also made their way through the bristling underbrush of a folk noir number and closed with a fiery PJ Harvey cover.

Liz Tormes, this city’s leading exponent of murder ballads, brought the ambience down to a blue-flame intensity, mining the catalogs of Peter Rowan and Bill Monroe, her own calmly and murderously alluring repertoire and closed with a stark Elizabethan suicide song. Former Snow frontwoman Hilary Downes sang a calmly brooding version of the Townes Van Zant classic Pancho & Lefty. And Mudville – singer/keyboardist Marilyn Carino and brilliant bassist Ben Rubin – kept the simmeringly ominous ambience going with noir cabaret takes on the Misfits and Tom Waits as well as an even more allusively venomous original.

That’s what makes Murder Ballad Mondays so interesting – it’s taking the concept of songs about killing people far beyond the time-honored Britfolk/Appalachian tradition. The more you know about music, the more you realize just how much we have in common: no matter the culture, people around the world just love to kill each other. And then write about it. This coming Murder Ballad Monday on March 21 starts at 8 sharp and features Charming Disaster, Elisa Flynn – whose rapturously haunting voice is matched by her historically-informed, erudite tunesmithing – and others TBA who will probably be just as good.

Villa Delirium Play Creepy Music on a Creepy Night

Villa Delirium hit the stage with a little Appalachian gothic and a lot of noir cabaret early on Valentine’s evening. It was an aptly creepy show on a day that always threatens to get creepy the later you stay out, if you end up secondguessing your better judgment. Valentine’s Day falling on a Sunday this year was probably a plus. And the show was at Barbes, as good a choice as any when it comes to getting away from creeps in Brooklyn these days.

Villa Delirium don’t play live very much, maybe because bandleader/multi-instrumentalist John Kruth is busy with kitchen-sink Middle Eastern/Central Asian jamband Tribecastan. Or because he’s also a writer: his next project chronicles the recording of the Beatles’ Rubber Soul. So this was a rare opportunity to catch the group’s sardonically sinister sound. Singing saw player Tine Kindermann channeled shivery, sepulchraly keeningl textures and sang with a nonchalantly crystalline intensity.

One of her most interesting numbers was Marie, a dramatically waltzing cabaret number chronicling the colorful, globe-trotting life of Mme. Marie Tussaud, whose adventures ran far afield of the wax kind. A grisly tribute to the original Paris Grand Guignol (which Kindermann mispronounced) was even more dramatic. She teamed with Kruth for a Berthold Brecht uumber set to the tune of old English ballad. Later they did a song based on the first half of a Grimms’ fairy tale – “Class warfare between the sexes,” as Kruth put it, in this case a woodsman who draws the line when the mistress of the house demands special favors.

Percussionist Steve Bear – whose kit was built from pots and pans – got up and sang a sarcastic faux doo-wop number based on the Sisyphus myth. Asked by someone in the crowd if it would be a happy song, the drummer replied, “This song’s about life in hell.” Nobody questioned if The Simpsons’ mainman Matt Groening was an inspiration. Bass clarinetist Doug Wieselman played slinky basslines for the most part while keyboardist Kenny Margolis switched with split-second precision between accordion, luridly tremoloing funeral organ and piano. Meanwhile, Kruth alternahed between banjo, mandolin and acoustic guitar.

The funniest song of the night was an older one he’d written about Donald Trump, reminding that the old blowhard hasn’t changed much since his developer dad hooked him up with tax breaks for his architectural ego-stroking. Another funny one was Kindermanns’s Nyet Is All You’ll Ever Get, a Russian folksong parody with plenty of political resonance. Eventually, they went completely over the top with a boisterous barrelhouse piano number, Turning up the Burners in Satan’s Steakhouse. Villa Delirium don’t seem to have any upcoming gigs at the moment; when they play, they’re usually either here or at Joe’s Pub.

Rachelle Garniez Releases 2015’s Best Album, a Harrowing, Richly Detailed Portrait of the Here and Now

Dichotomies run deep throughout Rachelle Garniez’s latest album, Who’s Counting, streaming at Spotify. Optimism and despondency, irresistible laughs and corrosive anger sit side by side. The music is spare, uncluttered and for the most part unhurried. Everything counts for something, even the subtlest touches. Funny/creepy hospital room sonics channeled via the highest stops on her accordion; faux sleigh bells that could be cruelly faux-Christmasy, or maybe just guardedly festive. Even the jauntiest tracks have a dark undercurrent, while the darkest ones are understated, even gentle. While the music draws on many retro styles – saloon blues, Louis Armstrong torch song, Brecht/Weill cabaret, 19th century Celtic New York balladry – it’s irrefutably in the here and now, an artifact of a year of refugee death marches, tribal bride murders and the devastation of Garniez’s beloved Manhattan as the stampede to cash in on what’s left of the real estate bubble leaves entire neighborhoods trampled and crippled. Garniez relates all those narratives in many voices: an innocent, a bawdy belter or a shellshocked witness, sometimes a parade of personalities in the same song. As a bittersweetly accurate portrait of the here and now, it is unrivalled in 2015 and for that reason is the best album of the year, maybe the best album in a career that includes more than one brilliant one.

Garniez’s work over the past fifteen years or so is not an easy read. Very often, the window of interpretation hangs open, as far as the degree of subtext or sarcasm lurking in the shadows underneath. On the surface, Medicine Man – a remake of a sultry hokum blues strut originally released on her 2003 Luckyday album – builds a steamy atmosphere fueled by the gusty brass of Hazmat Modine, of which Garniez is also a member. A closer listen reveals a thinly veiled plea for some relief from a lingering angst. Little Fish – a Cajun-flavored duet featuring the Hazmats’ banjo player Erik Della Penna, originally released on Garniez’s eclectic 2000 album Crazy Blood – is addressed to a missing person who might be missing for keeps. And the album’s most irrepressibly dancing number, Flat Black – a simple bass-and-vocal duet that looks back fifty years to Sarah Vaughan’s work with Joe Comfort – is a blackly droll look forward to the singer’s funeral, where everybody’s going to “sit shiva by the river, have a little chopped liver.”

That’s the bright side of the album. The dark side is harrowing, even devastating. Garniez plays spare gospel-tinged piano against an ambered horn chart on the title track, in the moment in every conceivable sense of that phrase. She maintains that mood, taking it up a notch for awhile, on the vivid, photorealistic New York Minute, on one hand a fond reminiscence of a Manhattan childhood in the days before helicopter parenting, on another a very uneasy portrait of a budding eight-year-old existentialist. And Manhattan Island – one of several miniatures interspersed enigmatically between songs – grounds the current speculative crisis in centuries of history.

The album’s highest points are also its most brooding. The Elizabethan Britfolk-flavored Vanity’s Curse opens as a suspensefully crepuscular portrait of a dotty old lady’s well-appointed lair but quickly moves to illuminate the sinister source of all that luxe: it’s impossible to imagine a more relevant song released this year. The haunting, starkly quiet A Long Way to Jerusalem follows an ages-old Talmudic tale, recast as a shattering chronicle of women abused and tortured over the centuries. And It’s a Christmas Song (watch the cool video) offers a contrarian view that will resonate with anyone whose tolerance for corporate holiday cheer has maxed out. As the song swings and bounces along, Garniez has no problem with revelry. “If you gotta shop, please support the mom & pop,” but:

Let’s celebrate the birth
Of redefining worth
Start a full-scale reconstruction
Of a flawed global economy
Take down corporate tyranny
Promote local autonomy

It figures that Garniez would wait til the album’s last song to finally drop her guard and let her message resonate, pure and simple. That’s a Christmas present worth sticking around for. Garniez plays Barbes on January 7 at 8 PM, then she’s back there on January 17 at 7:30 PM.

Rachelle Garniez Brings Her Harrowing Bon Vivant Existentialist Songcraft Back to Pangea Next Week

“The Ant and the Grasshopper fable made me cry, as a kid…it’s good I lived long enough to rewrite it,” Rachelle Garniez told the rapt, date-night crowd in the warmly lowlit, intimate piano room at Pangea last night. Her version of Aesop’s tale flips the script: the bon vivant grasshopper gets a second chance because the diligent, hardworking ant relents and realizes that her happy-go-lucky compatriot deserves it. Plus, she knows she’s been busted, since the grasshopper caught her dancing at the end of of a hard-earned day…just like a grasshopper would. Garniez played that song on accordion, as a tango, starting out darkly ambiguous and then brightening as the narrative went on. It dates from early part of her career and traces a familiar theme, optimism in the face of harrowing odds against it. She revisited that theme, playing both piano and guitar, throughout the show. She’s back at Pangea (Second Ave. between 11th and 12th Sts). at 7:30 PM on December 14; cover is $15.

Garniez’s raptly eclectic new album Who’s Counting is just out, so she played several cuts from it, backed by bassist Derek Nievergelt’s terse pulse. Much as there were a lot of jokes and a lot of laughter from the crowd, there was a persistent, dark undercurrent throughout this performance, consistent with the songs on the album. As she told it, Garniez was an existentialist by age eight, when she was riding her banana seat bike all over her old Upper West Side stomping ground. That song was a mix of barrelhouse piano blues and post Laura Nyro blue-eyed soul.

Garniez eaplained that she’d written the jaunty cabaret-blues Just Because You Can for jazz chanteuse Catherine Russsell, but then had second thoughts and decided to steal it back. “I asked for it first,” Garniez revealed. She reinvented the honkytonk waltz January Wind as a countrypolitan piano ballad and used a slinky, fingersnapping version of the stripped-down, blackly amusing bass-and-vocal number Flat Black as a platform for a snidely funny sendup of beauty products that promise immortality. The evening’s funniest tune was A Christmas Song, the new album’s coda. “People out here are dying of consumption, I mean the conspicuous kind,” Garniez deadpanned. “But if you got to shop, support the mom and pop!” Words of wisdom from a Manhattan-born and raised artist.

All that fun was anchored by just as much depth amidst the hostility of the world around us. Solo on acoustic guitar, Garniez took her time through the Elizabethan gothic ambience of Vanity’s Curse, arguably the album’s strongest track. On the surface, it’s a peek around a dotty old rich lady’s home. The subtext, which Garniez takes out of the shadows into the spotlight as the song goes on, reveals the sinister source of the wealth that bought all the tchotchkes and comfortable eccentricity.

The high point of the night, at least intensity-wise, was a hauntingly minimalistic take of A Long Way to Jerusalem, another song from the new album. It was the one point where Garniez let outright wrath into her voice, low and menacing as she put out an indictment for slavers and sex traffickers and clueless users who’ve bought into centuries’ worth of misogyny. And there’s a livewire political subtext: when Elijah arrives to show the daughters of Jerusalem the way out, he’s too hammered to find the door.

After the brooding existentialist art-rock soul of the album’s title track and the droll operatics of Jean-Claude Van Damme – a hilariously skewed look at this generation’s version of Mother’s Little Helpers – Garniez encored with a swinging, relaxed take of Silly Me, the warmly and guardedly optimistic opening track of her 2000 cult classic album Crazy Blood. “I never thought I’d live to see this century,” she intoned, gentle and balmy over guest guitarist Beledo’s elegantly picked flamenco lines. She was probably speaking for probably half the room, especially the black-clad oldschool neighborhood types who’ve been a mainstay of her downtown fan base for the better part of the past two decades. It’s hard to think of anyone who embodies the irrepressible spirit of those days in the here and now like Garniez does: you can find that in the welcoming back room at Pangea next Monday night.

Rachelle Garniez Brings Her Irrepressible New York Wit, Charisma and Songcraft to the East Village for Two Shows

Accordionist/multi-instrumentalist Rachelle Garniez was the first artist ever covered at this blog. Considering how the music blog demimonde is as crowded, and generally anonymous, as a Chinatown mall, if you’re going to hang your shingle out there, you want to go into business with a bang, really make it count, right? Four and a half years after that hot August night on the Lower East Side, Garniez – widely considered to be the gold standard for New York songwriters – has seen her career skyrocket, touring worldwide with her own group as well as playing in edgily shanbling blues/swing/Carribean/klezmer kitchen-sink band Hazmat Modine. Garniez also has a killer new album, Who’s Counting, just out and a couple of shows coming up on December 7 and 14 in the intimate, sonically exquisite piano room at Pangea on Second Ave. between 11th and 12th Sts. Cover is $15

For Garniez, ecstasy and despair are two sides of the same coin. She sings in character, and she’s got a million of them. deadpan ingenue, wide-eyed schoolgirl, hazily smiling hippie chick, opera diva, slinky silent film-era flapper. And also venomous oldschool punk rocker, outraged 99-percenter, wounded veteran of the psychic wars. irrepressible bon vivant, born-and-raised streetwise New Yorker with a sentimental streak as wide as Broadway at Park Place. Many of those characters inhabit the same song. Garniez loves to work that live, just as much as she likes to mess with the audience. One of her favorite shticks is to open a number, or write a first verse, that leads you to believe that the song’s going to be blithe and contented all the way through – and then she flips the script.

The last time this blog caught her live – at Barbes back around Labor Day – she actually didn’t mess with the crowd much. Instead, she was all about the songs. This was an intimate duo show with her regular bassist/sparring partner Tim Luntzel, who took centerstage on the macabrely funny Flat Black, a jaunty bass-and-vocal blues. Otherwise, he hung in the shadows and supplied a slinky backdrop, Garniez opening on accordion with the uneasily summery Manhattan Island, segueing from there into Tourmaline, a big crowd favorite with its bitter metaphors of semi-precious stones who go unappreciated. The high point of this particular show was Vanity’s Curse. She played that one on acoustic guitar, an Elizabethan-tinged Britfolk guitar waltz that goes on for awhile as a cozily nocturnal portrait of domestic contentment (and decor) before Garniez rips off the mask and reveals the source of where all that luxe came from.

Then she went to the piano for New York Minute, saloon jazz in the same vein as Mose Allison – if he’d been a girl from the Upper West in the days before yuppification, instead of a guy from Mississippi. The rest of the show ran the gamut of styles and her rich back catalog. There was the strutting, aphoristic Weimar blues Just Because You Can; God’s Little Acre, a defiantly hilarious kiss-off to a fling from the past turned Facebook stalker; and the understatedly grim existentialist gospel of the new album’s title track, all spiced with stinging, extemporaneous between-song banter. If this sounds like fun, it ought to be even more so next week in Garniez’s old East Village stomping ground.