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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.

Carol Lipnik and Matt Kanelos Hold the Crowd Rapt in the East Village

Carol Lipnik might not just be the best singer in New York – she might be the best singer anywhere. That’s not as impossible as it might seem, considering Lipnik’s vast four-octave range, as strong in the depths as it is in the stratosphere. But there are dozens of women around the world who can hit the highs and the lows, hard: Lipnik distinguishes herself with soul, and passion, and her dark wit and mystical stage presence and subtle, subtext-drenched lyrics. Like Dory Previn – a possible, distant influence, maybe – she’s invented her own genre. It’s avant garde in the purest sense of the word, fearless and adventurous to the nth degree. But where much of the avant garde is harsh and forbidding, Lipnik’s songs draw equally on contemporary classical, Romantic art-song, the far side of opera, artsy psychedelia like Radiohead and first-rate tunesmiths like Richard Thompson – whom Lipnik has memorably covered in the past. And they draw you in. She has a Sunday night residency beginning March 8, a series of intimate duo performances with pianist Matt Kanelos at 7 PM at Pangea at 178 2nd Ave (11th/12th St.) Cover is $20; reservations to 212 995-0900 are a good idea since it’s a cozy space.

Her most recent show there drew heavily on songs from her shattering new album Almost Back to Normal, current frontrunner for 2015’s best release. The title track was one of the night’s highlights, Kanelos anchoring it with a terse, minimalist insistence as Lipnik took flight with its imploring mantra of a chorus. Lipnik is Coney Island born and bred, is drawn to water imagery and is troubled by oceanic crises, from hurricanes to exploding nuclear power plants. She didn’t reference either of those recent historical events directly, but her ocean is a turbulent one these days, more so than when she was building a strong back catalog of colorful, carnivalesque, ragtime and noir cabaret influenced material.

As the night went on, Kanelos’ elegantly tidal, hypnotic Philip Glass circles anchored Lipnik’s gentle, understated longing and angst. Among the new songs, Honeypot mashed up vintage Laura Nyro soul with anxious minimalism, a grinning, unselfconsciously sensual confection. Lipnik voiced the menacing voices of a stunned group of metaphorical birds in Crow’s Nest, then took the energy to the top of the mountain with the soaring, anthemic Sonadora Dreamer.

She brought back the menace a bit later with the cautionary tale The Things That Make You Grow and its biting chromatics, an attempt to create a sonic counterpart to a William Blake illuminated manuscript. A brooding setting of cult poetess Helen Adam’s alienated Farewell Stranger was done as a rippling blend of rugged Appalachian rusticity and fin-de-siecle Paris salon music. Another angst-fueled highlight was a new song by Kanelos, Lipnik channeling the sheer emotional depletion of a pacifist abandoned in a world torn by senselessness and war.

There were also a handful of covers: a minimalist art-rock take of Leonard Cohen’s The Gypsy’s Wife; an almost imperceptibly crescendoing, plaintively wounded cover of Harry Nilsson’s Life Line. and an absolutely hilarious and equally dazzling grand guignol cover of The Twist that was part Klaus Nomi and part Lux Interior. Joey Arias also made a cameo, bringing the house down with a catty, spot-on Billie Holiday evocation as Kanelos supplied a deadpan, bluesy backdrop. It was a long set: other originals spanned from echoes of plainchant to vaudeville to the baroque to theremin music. Lipnik and Kanelos really gave the crowd their money’s worth and then some. You’ll be hearing more about that amazing new album here a bit later on.

Sunday Salon #4 – What Tryptophan Overdose?

Every Sunday at 5 PM, New York Music Daily hosts the Sunday Salon at Zirzamin in the old Zinc Bar space at Houston and LaGuardia. The previous week was a hotbed of dark songwriting activity; this one began with a small sampling of the A-list, some of whom will be performing here in the weeks to come. Beyond the inevitability that this music blog would start booking shows, why this format, and why here? Because it’s one of Manhattan’s best-sounding rooms. And since there are upwards of a thousand groups and musicians across all styles who comprise this city’s elite, it’s a daunting task to keep up with each and every one of them individually. From a blogger’s point of view, the salon is a step closer to one-stop shopping, a chance to stay on top of what at least a portion of the most important artists in town are doing.

LJ Murphy, who’s playing here at 7 on Dec 9 with his band the Accomplices, opened the evening with a trio of characteristically vivid, savage, catchy songs including the big crowd-pleaser Barbed Wire Playpen (about a Madoff type who likes to get spanked) and Sleeping Mind, a nonchalantly chilling, soul-infused chronicle of clinical depression. John Hodel did a couple of surreally aphoristic, grimly funny numbers, followed by the Salon’s own Lauraly Grossman, who unearthed a rustic Laura Marling rarity as well as a bluesy, rustic one of her own which she sang a-cappella. Lorraine Leckie, who’s here this coming Sunday at 7, then took over the piano. While it’s amazing how simple yet resonant her dark chamber pop songs are, her upcoming show here is with her careening Canadian gothic rock band the Demons, featuring Hugh Pool on lead guitar.

After the salon, chanteuse Carol Lipnik and pianist Matt Kanelos (who also fronts Americana soul band the Smooth Maria) treated the crowd to a luminous, magical, otherworldly set. Lipnik had brought her famous vocal pedal but used it judiciously for just an extra touch of creepy reverb or echo. Though she can wow a crowd with her four-octave range, she only went up that high a handful of times throughout an eclectic mixof originals and covers that nonethless came across almost as a single piece. Kanelos’ judiciously resounding chords and hypnotic, percussive attack took the trancelike quality of the music several steps up, through Leonard Cohen’s The Gypsy Wife, an utterly minimalist version of Harry Nillsson’s Life Line and then Wilco’s War on War, stripped bare to its inner juxtaposition of hope and dread.

They elegantly elevated an Emily Dickinson poem to New England gothic territory, following with the high point of the evening, two new Lipnik originals, the ethereal Crow’s Nest and the toweringly mysterious Oh, the Tyranny. Kanelos reinvented Nick Drake’s Black-Eyed Dog as a deadly, ravenous beast with his hammering cross-handed counterrythms, then taking the mood back to deep ethereality with two songs of his own, With the Sum and The Brink. The biggest hits with the crowd were a trance-inducing take on Richard Thompson’s gloomy The Great Valerio (where Lipnik did a bit of wirewalking, consciously or unconsciously, to drive the lyrics home). They closed with Neil Young’s There’s a World (which as Lipnik explained could be part of a much bigger picture…or just about smoking pot), freak-folk icon Michael Hurley’s Troubled Waters, and then, persuaded to do an encore, ended the night on a chilling but transcendent note with Kanelos taking over the lead vocals on a minimalist yet lushly haunted version of the Smiths’ There Is a Light That Never Goes Out.

The Sunday Salon happens every week starting at 5 PM at Zirzamin, the lowlit subterranean music parlor in the old Zinc Bar space on Houston and LaGuardia. The public is always welcome to come out and watch, and admission is always free. This coming Sunday’s featured guests at 7 PM are Canadian gothic rockers Lorraine Leckie and Her Demons.