As one of the world’s more adventurous cellists, Marika Hughes is always in demand. You want cred? She’s played with Tom Waits, Lou Reed and recorded two albums with Two Foot Yard for John Zorn’s Tzadik label. But her best work is her own, with her band Bottom Heavy: Charlie Burnham on violin, Kyle Sanna on guitar, Fred Cash Jr on bass and Tony Mason on drums. They’re one of the most distinctive groups in New York, equally adept at ornate art-rock, elegant chamber pop, funky soul and even Americana. Hughes’ songs shift shape on a dime, and she’s a strong and vivid lyricist. Finally, after a couple of Saturday night Barbes residencies and plenty of gigging all over town, she and the band are releasing their debut album, New York Nostalgia. The album release show is tonight, March 14 at 7:30 PM at Joe’s Pub; tix are $15 and are still available as of this morning.
Her narratives and tunesmithing mirror her cosmopolitan background, equally informed by classical, rock, jazz, blues old-school soul, funk, Americana, free improvisation, Jewish music and the avant garde. Her strong, uncluttered alto voice moves seamlessly between styles, as does her playing: as a cellist, her low end is just as much about groove as it is about elegantly ambered washes of sound and lively, dancing melody.
The album’s opening track, Chapter Four, kicks off with a suspensefully-shivering string intro in the same vein as a classic ELO radio hit. From there, Hughes layers a dreamy, cinematically atmospheric anthem, a jaunty one-woman string quartet hovering over a driving motorik highway theme with hints of Ethiopian rhythm.
Fools Gold builds almost imperceptibly from warm, summery Temptations soul to a rousing gospel crescendo capped off by a characteristically purposeful Hughes cello solo. Jordan McLean’s jaunty trumpet spices the enigmatic Dream It Away, an imaginatively nocturnal blend of funky latin soul and early 70s Carole King Brill Building songcraft.
An unselfconsciously haunting look back at a New York now gone forever, Click Three Times builds to a mashup of majestically orchestrated funk and lush, classic 70s Gil Scott-Heron soul out of a slinky guaguanco beat, Hughes playing slyly dancing lines through a wah pedal over Burnham’s gorgeous violin. Then the band brings it down with the pensive For the Last Time, Hughes’ mournful, spare solo at its center.
The unexpectedly fiery, shapeshifting, balletesque instrumental waltz So Gracefully echoes both Hughes’ Tzadik work as her work in film composition. Single Girl opens as pensive, wary chamber pop and builds to a haunting psychedelic tropicalia groove spiced by Sanna’s acerbic, modal guitar and one of the album’s most stunning cello solos, the two instruments eventually intertwining and throwing off sparks.
The seductive blues No Dancing is a showcase for Hughes’ most sultry vocal stylings, lowlit by producer Doug Wamble’s blue-flame slide guitar. Likewise, the swing ballad A Kiss Is Just As Sweet As It Gets takes a Mad Men era milieu into the present, Wamble’s slide playing enhancing the balmy ambience and come-hither lyrics. Sophisticated Alice shifts between a Bo Diddley beat, a zydeco dance and bracing postbop jazz flourishes. The album winds up with This Is the Sound, a pulsing, triumphantly vivid soul anthem that sends a shout-out to ambitious young urban wake-and-bake stoners. Throughout the album, there’s a tight chemistry and warm camaraderie that stems from this band’s years together
It’s only March, but this is a strong contender for best abum of 2016; it’s by far the most interestingly eclectic one to come over the transom here this year. Since it’s due out momentarily, it hasn’t hit the usual streaming spots yet, but there are a handful of tracks up at Hughes’ music page and Soundcloud.