New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Tag: chamber pop

No-No Boy Bring Their Fascinating, Harrowing, Catchy Songs of Japanese-American Incarceration to Lincoln Center

In one of the more ugly chapters in American history, beginning in 1942 almost 130,000 Japanese-Americans were seized without trial and subsequently imprisoned in a total of ten concentration camps, mostly in the western states. Most of those individuals were American citizens. Virtually all of them, instructed to leave their homes behind with only what they could carry with them, would spend the entirety of World War II imprisoned.

The “no-no boys,” as concentration camp staff first called them, refused to swear allegiance to the United States or serve in the military, which makes sense considering that virtually all of these men had family and relatives were were imprisoned along with them. With their debut album, 1942 – streaming at Bandcamp – elegantly tuneful rock band No-No Boy bring the chilling, powerfully relevant history of that era to life. They’re playing the atrium space at Lincoln Center on Broadway just north of 62nd St. this Thurs, Nov 15 at 7:30 PM. The show is free, but the earlier you get there the better because the venue frequently sells out.

Frontman/guitarist Julian Saporiti harmonizes with singer Erin Aoyama in the album’s shimmering, Elliott Smith-tinged opening track, Pacific Fog, Tessa Sacramone’s plaintive violin soaring overhead. Saporiti’s narrative allusively references John Okada’s hauting1957 novel, also titled No-No Boy.

This album goes beyond Japanese-American incarceration to focus on similarly relevant history. Case in point: Boat People, a gently sweeping, hypnotic ballad that juxtaposes the story of a mid-70s Vietnamese doctor who resettled in Montreal, alongside a more detailed, harrowing account of current-day refugees:

Fourteen hours by car, cargo trucks and cabs
Just to shake the cops, Mom had to stay back
A Chinese safe house and covered tracks…

The floor of the Pacific is littered with Asian bones.

The stories lighten but are no less minutely detailed in Han Shan & Helen Keller: Cold Mountain – an indelibly tense wintertime Boston college-crowd scenario – and then Disposable Youth, a wry afternoon party pickup scenario. By contrast, Lam Thi Dep – a John Lennon-esque anthem named after a female Viet Cong soldier captured in a famous Vietnam War photo – has the most intertwined of all the stories here. Saporiti’s savagely sardonic references reach beyond the fact that many first-generation Vietnamese-Americans voted Republican, to a hilarious account of knee-jerk political correctness in academia.

Instructions to All Persons refers to the FDR edict to round up Japanese-Americans on the west coast; Saporiti and Ayoyama sing in the voice of a survivor of the camps, reflecting on their prisoner friends’ quiet defiance and attempts to maintain some kind of normalcy there.

Saporiti draws his inspiration for Ogie/Naoko, a charming ukulele waltz, from Melody Miyamoto Walters’ book In Love and War: The World War II Love Letters of a Nisei Couple, adding sobering context to an otherwise schmaltzy story. The sweeping parlor pop ballad Heart Mountain – named for the camp where Ayoyama’s grandmother was imprisoned – is another waltz, Saporiti’s narrator hopeful that someday he can consummate a clandestine romance and rebuild his life as a college professor.

Two Candles In the Dark, arguably the album’s strongest song, is perhaps ironically its most Americana-flavored one. Saporiti gives voice to an irrepressible rulebreaker looking to get over despite her circumstances:

Pretty outlaw call a quarter past, light knuckles on a barrack door
She got a brother down in Topaz, I saw that name once in a jewelry store
Wind around past the skaters and pond, looking for a cut in the wire
She’s got a key to the cellar door,
I don’t ask questions, man, just stand there inspired

Dragon Park, the album’s most stoically angry song, traces images from Saporiti’s own Tennessee childhood as a Vietnamese-American fighting off racist idiots:

I know that Southern Stare
Not just back home but everywhere

The album ends with its most Asian folk-inflected tune, Little Saigon, lost in a reverie of a place to indulge in a heritage including but not limited to Vietnamese psychedelic rock and the dan bau, a magical, warp-toned stringed instrument. At its best, Saporiti’s tunesmithing ranks with any of the real visionaries of this era: Elvis Costello, Hannah Fairchild and Rachelle Garniez. You’ll see on the best albums of 2018 page at the end of the year.

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Single of the Day 11/3/18 – Creepy Fun From Charming Disaster

There’s still plenty of great stuff kicking around from Halloween month. Here’s an especially fun one: Charming Disaster’s Be My Bride of Frankenstein (via soundcloud). New York’s #1 torchy murder ballad duo take a stab at Monster Mash pop with some phantasmagorical psychedelia thrown in!

Trippy, Kinetic, Lavishly Orchestrated Sounds and an Alphabet City Gig by Gadadu

Gadadu are sort of a slower My Brightest Diamond, or a more soul-influenced Arc Iris. Strings shimmer and shine, layers of acoustic and electronic keys mingle and echo, and the songs on their new album Outer Song – streaming at Bandcamp – don’t follow any standard verse/chorus pattern. They’re bringing their lush, often hypnotic art-rock swirl and pulse to an intimate gig at the Treehouse at 2A on Oct 26 at 10ish. Be aware that there’s a $12 cover.

When’s the last time you heard a majestically string-fueled trip-hop anthem with a prepared piano solo? That’s the opening track, The Lion, Nicki Adams supplying that alongside blippy electric piano, the Rhythm Method String Quartet providing the sheen above frontwoman/violist Hannah Selin’s cutting, slightly acidic vocals.

Exquisite Corpse is a coy funhouse mirror pastiche shifting suddenly and unexpectedly between psychedelic soul, a New Orleans groove, kinetic My Brightest Diamond art-rock, and trip-hop. Patrick Adams’ trumpet wafts and then blazes through the cloudbanks of orchestration.

The cover of the Beatles’ Julia is an odd choice, but the ensemble redeem themselves with both psychedelic and orchestral touches, drummer Arthur Vint propelling the group to greater heights than Paul McCartney probably ever imagined.

Selin’s pizzicato viola sparkles in tandem with her enticing vocals and the electric piano as the simply titled Life gets underway, shifting between a scurrying brightness and enveloping atmospherics. Tony Park’s clarinet contrasts with dancing, pointillistic keys amid the washes of strings in Makeshift Constellations, which could be a lavishly orchestrated early Linda Draper tune.

Chided has some of the album’s most striking, swelling and shivery orchestration: it’s the mightiest  track here, deflecting subtly into a bossa-inflected groove with the trumpet soaring overhead.

Selin’s playfully abstruse lyrical imagery reaches a savagely allusive focus in Train Blues:

Sold to brand-new folksy lemon daffodils with sorbet
Snooked-out lofts ate octopus allowed by the free trade-owned
Whistle for the wind to take me on a journey
Sand and feelings fly, the draft is in a hurry
Take me off this train

Its towering sway and dissociative train-terminal sonics bring to mind singer/keyboardist Sara McDonald’s mighty NYChillharmonic. Daniel Stein’s bass rises gracefully to puncture the swirl in the album’s final cut, Bay Songs, an ensemble of cellist Valeriya Sholokhova, violinists Sana Nagano and Gabe Valle and clarinetist Hila Zamir supplying alternately vast and stark dynamics. There’s a lot to get lost in here.

A Rapturous, Relevant, Thoughtful Show by Eclectic Violinist Concetta Abbate

Saturday night at Pete’s Candy Store, violinist Concetta Abbate held the crowd silent through a beguiling, sometimes entrancing, sometimes sprightly set of original vocal and instrumental numbers, in a duo set with similarly nuanced drummer Ben Engel. Abbate is your typical in-demand string player: one day she’ll be playing Haydn, the next psychedelic Mayan folk with Inti & the Moon, or with Rose Thomas Bannister’s haunting art-rock band.

Abbate’s own material defies categorization. It’s elegant, minutely detailed and rarely ends up where it began. Shifting between pensive ambience, graceful baroque-tinged riffs and gently churning pizzicato phrases, she made all those stylistic leaps and bounds look easy. Most of her songs are under three minutes long, so she came up with several diptychs and triptychs.

A mini-suite from her most recent studio album Falling in Time gave her a launching pad from which to sail to the top of her vocal register – for someone who sings as calmly and often quietly as she does, she has enormous range. The best of the originals might have been a lilting, rather anthemic new one, contemplating how the Brooklyn-Queens border is a graveyard – literally – and allusively referencing the blitzkrieg of gentrification that’s extending that situation, metaphorically at least.

The lone cover in her set was a muted, straightforward chamber-pop arrangement of the Smiths’  There Is a Light That Never Goes Out, arguably even more cruelly bittersweet than the original since Abbate didn’t go over the top with her vocals, letting the lyrics’ angst and longing speak for themselves. Engel’s masterfully suspenseful drumming grounded the music’s upper registers while adding considerable suspense. Whether playing with brushes or mallets, from rustling whispers to spot-on imitations of Arabic drums – boomy daf and gently popping dumbek – he was always in one good place or another.

Abbate’s next gig is at the Park Church Coop at 129 Russell St. in Greenpoint on Sept 9 at 2 PM, joining an chamber ensemble for a killer program of her own work plus material by women composers Missy Mazzoli, Whitney George, Anna Bon and Kate Amrine. There’s no G train this weekend, so you’ll have to take the L to Bedford and walk. Cover is $10 and includes snacks. Abbate is also playing solo at the small room at the Rockwood on Sept 30 at 3 (three) PM.

A Shatteringly Relevant New Suite Casts a Cold Eye on Surveillance State Terror

“The last refuge of privacy,” is how the central object in The Secret Diary of Nora Plain was described by the song cycle’s lyricist, Lucky Fonz III at National Sawdust this past weekend. In their US debut, premiering this haunting, labyrinthine yet often shatteringly direct suite to a sold-out audience, Dutch ensemble the Ragazze Quartet were bolstered by the eclectic beats of percussionist Remco Menting.

In front of the ensemble, charismatic singer Nora Fischer channeled the increasing terror of being caught in the spycams’ deadly web, whether calm and stoic, shivering on the floor or twitching like a marionette, Ian Curtis-style.  “Let bygones be bygones,” she encouraged coolly during one of the early songs, hope against hope. At that point it wasn’t clear just what this story’s everywoman had done – if anything – to catch Big Brother’s merciless eye, a conclusion that the suite left hanging. That only raised the suspense, underscoring how anyone with an identifiable cellphone or a Facebook page  – or without one, conceivably – could be caught in the trap.

Fischer is force of nature. At her quietest, she brought a plaintive, sometimes prayerful quality to the narrative; at her loudest, she belted with a gale-force wail worthy of Aretha. Likewise, the quintet of musicians began with an atmospheric whisper and rose in a series of waves, through as many different styles as a string quartet augmented by a drummer with a full kit plus vibraphone could possibly play.

The stage direction was spare yet tightly focused on an ever-encroaching menace, pushing Nora further and further toward the edge. There were moments when the quartet drew ominously closer and closer to her; other times, they fell in line as good soldiers in a police state are required to. Menting took a couple of turns behind a small keyboard during quieter, more atmospheric interludes. Likewise, violinists Rosa Arnold and Jeanita Vriens shifted to Menting’s vibraphone and bowed icy, airy textures at a couple of the suite’s most whispery ebbs.

The songs, with music by Morris Kliphuis, rose and fell, akin to Elvis Costello’s Juliet Letters with music by Philip Glass and Caroline Shaw and played by Rasputina, perhaps. Cellist Rebecca Wise propelled those shifts with stark, raw washes along with elegantly incisive pizzicato; violist Annemijn Bergkotte was a spare, striking presence in both the low and higher registers as well. Stylistically, the segments ran the gamut from hypnotically circling, kinetic chamber rock – often spiced with allusively macabre, Glass-ine phrases – to an emphatic detour into funk, murky mood pieces, and a couple of rises to sheer terror, most grippingly in Rat in My Room. Whether that rat was the four-legged or two-legged kind was left to the audience to figure out.

Was Fischer’s final exit what it seemed on the surface, a coyly triumphant slip out the side door? Or was she going elsewhere? Readers of Lois Lowry‘s dystopic classic The Giver will get that reference. Anyone concerned with the perilous state of civil liberties should see this hauntingly enigmatic, rivetingly disturbing, potently relevant work. 

Emma Grace Stephenson Brings Her Dynamic Piano Songcraft to Gowanus This Weekend

If state-of-the-art tuneful songcraft is your thing, the place to be this weekend is at Shapeshifter Lab on April 29 at 7 PM where brilliantly eclectic Australian pianist and singer Emma Grace Stephenson opens a fantastic triplebill, leading a trio with a surprise mystery guest singer (the venue says it’s Kristin Berardi). Afterward at a little after 8 another pianist, Richard Sussman leads his sweeping, enveloping allstar Sextet, which includes Tim Hagans on trumpet; Rich Perry on tenor sax and Zach Brock on violin. Then at 9:30 by the Notet with saxophonist Jeremy Udden, trombonist JC Sanford, guitarist Andrew Green and guests playing he album release show for their new one.

Stephenson is an artist who rightfully could headline a bill like this. She’s an extraordinarily vivid composer whose work gravitates toward the dark side. Her greatest achievement so far is probably her work with the Hieronymus Trio, whose 2016 album is a high-water mark in recent noir cinematic jazz. But she’s also a songwriter, and has a plaintively dynamic new album, Where the Rest of the World Begins, with them and singer Gian Slater, due out soon but not yet up at her music page.

Maybe coincidentally, the opening track, Crows Will Still Fly comes across as a more rhythmically tricky take on the same kind of moody parlor pop that Stephenson’s fellow Oz songwriter Greta Gertler Gold has perfected over the past decade or so. Slater’s airy, expressive high soprano is a cross between Gertler Gold and Minnie Riperton, but more misty than either singer. The lithe bass and drums of Nick Henderson and Oliver Nelson push the song into a bright, triumphant clearing for Slater’s scatting; then Stephenson follows with a similarly crescendoing piano solo. “With great joy comes great sorrow” is the theme.

Song For My Piano is a wry, saloon blues-love ballad: “While you throw stones in the water, blowing my cover, who am I kidding?” Slater wants to know; then the bandleader goes for a cautiously rippling spiral of a solo. As a pianist, Stephenson brings to mind Mara Rosenbloom’s blend of neoromantic gleam and brushfire improvisation.

If the Sun Made a Choice has a jaunty Dawn Oberg-like bounce and an imagistic lyric pondering the pitfalls of narrow, dualistic thinking. Rising out of purposeful chords and washes of cymbals, Love Is Patient is much more expansive, even rubato in places: ”Always in the present tense with every sense, do less, live more,” Slater cajoles.

Stephenson switches to Rhodes, then eventually moves back to the grand piano for Going In Circles. an unlikely but successful mashup of artsy ELO-style pop, 70s soul and trickily metric, tightly  unspooling Philip Glass-ine melody. The final cut is the epic title track, which takes a turn in the brooding direction of the trio’s previous album. Stephenson opens it spaciously and expands from there with her rippling water imagery:

An endless flow of useless thoughts and consequent sensations
Can govern every step we take filling us with trepidation
But we are not the thoughts within nor just an empty vessel…

From there a magically misterioso drum solo and Stephenson’s pointillistic, music-box-like solo punctuate this poetic meditation on impermanence and change. Lots to sink your ears into here from a fearlessly individualistic talent who defies easy categorization.

A Rapturous, Hauntingly Spare Solo Album From Enigmatic Cello Rock Songstress Serena Jost

The sheer hummability of cellist/multi-instrumentalist Serena Jost’s music contrasts with the opaqueness of her lyrics. In her music, nothing is ever as it seems despite all indications to the contrary. That enigmatic sensibility has served her well over the past fifteen years. The closest comparison is ELO’s Jeff Lynne, a similarly brilliant tunesmith whose signature sound blends classical ideas with rock, and has a similarly distinctively, elegant production style as well. Jost’s newest album, Up to the Sky – streaming at her music page – is her most ambitious to date. It’s a solo recording, just cello and vocals, recorded in the rich, reverberating sonics of St. Peter’s Church at 346 W 20th St. in Chelsea, where she’s playing the album release show on April 19 at 7:30 PM. Cover is $10; a reception will follow.

Window opens the album. Jost’s stark, ambered low chords, circling in a Philip Glass vein, anchor her clear, pensive vocals. A recurring shooting star reference adds to the nocturnal rapture and unease.

The influence of Jost’s frequent collaborator Amanda Thorpe shines through plaintively in The Cut, a canteringly hypnotic, Britfolk-tinged, plaintively imagistic lament. Likewise, the wave motion of Clement – just vocalese and cello – sets the stage for Great Conclusions. Playing this with her band, Jost cuts loose with a galloping, crescendoing intensity, but in this version, her pizzicato attack is muted, her vocals understated and clear, echoing Linda Thompson as the song’s gloomily allusive narrative winds out.

Hallway. another instrumental with vocalese, brings in a hazy late-afternoon sun, introducing the baroque-flavored vignette Happiness. “Happiness has come and gone without warning, just a lantern in the night.” Jost intones.

Lullaby is a melody much of the world knows from childhood; the cello adds a newly somber undercurrent. By contrast, It’s a Delight rises to an unexpectedly triumphant crescendo over the sparest, circling low-register riff. Jost works that dichotomy again in Silver Star, its images of escape and release over subtle variations on a mantra-like cello phrase. The album concludes, unresolved, with the fragmentary, echoing, mysterious Red Door. Fans of darkly individualistic songwriters from Carol Lipnik to Connie Converse will devour this. Indie classical people ought to check this out as well – for what it’s worth, Jost once arranged and led a fifty-cello performance of Terry Riley’s In C!

Video Satire of the Day – LMAO

If twee overkill has pushed you past the boiling point, you’ll feel deliciously avenged by Passive Aggressives Anonymous’ new video, (Let’s Have a Nice White) Middle Class Male Cry (via Youtube). If NPR doesn’t pick this deadpan, venomous faux bossa pop tune for a Tiny Desk Concert, there’s something wrong. Frontguy John Valenti’s outfit and haircut are just as spot-on sick as the song. Weird Al Yankovic meets Tredici Bacci with a Morrissey wannabe out front – it’s funny just to think about.

Dark Beasts: Brooklyn’s Most Riveting, Relevant Young Band

The cold gaze of a black python greeted the crowd on their way up the stairs at the Gatehouse concert series in Fort Greene last night, where Dark Beasts played a tantalizingly short set of catchy, surreal, unflinchingly relevant songs that defy categorization. The band name suits the trio perfectly: their songs are dark, and they are definitely beasts.

Lead singer Lillian Schrag was responsible for that menacing creature and its removable green scales, in addition to the lowlit stage design and her band’s painted bestial faces. Their first song, The Python’s Lament, was more distantly sinister, Schrag’s torrents of lyrics over Trixie Madell’s enigmatically anthemic psych-folk guitar chords, violinist Violet Paris-Hillmer running an icy, creepy loop over and over.

Over the past couple of years, Dark Beasts have built a devoted following among their fellow musicians. Many of those fans are three or four times older than the group’s members. Each is a multi-instrumentalist. Schrag, the daughter of Rose Thomas Bannister – one of this era’s greatest songwriters – plays piano and bass, but in this group her main contribution is vocals. She’s also the primary lyricist. Whether on guitar or piano, Madell brings a deep David Bowie influence to the songs. Paris-Hillmer plays percussion in addition to violin, and has a background in classical music as well. Technique-wise, they’re a work in progress – although their proficiency continues to grow in all kinds of  unexpected ways. And their songwriting is astonishing. We give children too little credit for their depth and their insights. 

Madell switched to piano, balancing eerie highs against stygian lows throughout the second number, Soldier’s Song, a terse, brooding, mythologically-influenced antiwar anthem. Paris-Hillmer moved to frame drum for that one, where she’d remain for the rest of the set.

Standing tall – about four feet eight inches – in front of the band, Schrag was a somber, charismatic presence throughout the third song, Stop Polluting or the World’s Going to Die. Madell’s uneasy guitar vamps anchored Schrag’s clever wordplay in Night Animals, a Maurice Sendak-ish catalog of nocturnal wildlife. They closed with The Wolf, a brief, forlorn anthem

Schrag played the encore solo on bass, churning out a pitchblende drone beneath a lyric that seemed at least partly improvised. “If you’re smart enough to fire a gun, you should use your mind,” she cautioned. The crowd responded with a standing ovation. Afterward, the group signed balloons for the audience, then got into the ice cream.

Dark Beasts will probably be on hiatus until school vacation this June. In the meantime, at least one adult Brooklyn band has been playing Dark Beasts material. There are innumerable other children’s bands in Brooklyn, but most of them are cutesy, or at best they struggle to play cover songs. As Margaret Atwood once said – more or less  – compared to other little girls, Dark Beasts are lifesize. Watch this space for upcoming live appearances.

A Lavish, Ambitious, Politically-Inspired New Album by Banda Magda

Banda Magda frontwoman Magda Giannikou writes fluently and fearlessly in an amazing number of styles from around the world. Accordion is her main axe, but she also plays the lanterna, an ancient, magically rippling Greek instrument. Her band’s debut album T’es La put a cheery Mediterranean spin on vintage French ye-ye pop. The follow-up, 2014’s Yerakina, was far darker, established the band as a major force in latin and Mediterranean psychedelia, and earned them a regular spot in the rotation on the New York outdoor summer concert circuit.

The songs on the band’s latest album Tigre –  streaming at Spotify – draw inspiration from freedom fighters in her native Greece battling Eurozone bankster terrorism. The Nicaraguan struggle against corporate-funded death squads became a focal point for punk rock forty years ago. Is this the 2018 counterpart to the Clash’s Sandinista album? It’s more opaque, maybe a wise move considering global circumstances at the moment, but it’s practically just as epic. This is all about the orchestration: sweep and grandeur punctuated by elegant guitar and keys, driven by an eclectic rhythm section. The central theme is stay strong: we’ve really got our work cut out for us.

The first track, Tam Tam, welds a slinky, surfy, Middle Eastern-tinged electic bouzouki line to lush, sweeping new wave: if Chicha Libre had been Greek and had existed in 1982, they might have sounded something like this. Giannikou sings this one in French. She welds those lush strings, lingering guitar and new wave touches to a bouncy samba beat in the chipper, cheery Coração – as the song rises, the orchestration and clickety-clack groove grow more hypnotic.

Ase Me Na opens with a long, sweeping, mournful string introduction, then becomes a swaying Aegean anthem – as with the first track, uneasy, spiky electric bouzouki punctuates the enveloping majesty of the strings. Giannikou saves her most hushed, tender vocal for Muchacha, the orchestra occasionally bubbling over a hypnotically circling tropical acoustic guitar tune.

She blends rapidfire Indian riffage into Brazilian forro in the insistent Vem Moren, rising from stark cello riffage to a brass-fueled dance. Chanson is a lush, starry throwback to the balmy pop of the band’s first album, then the band pick up the pace with the tricky, sauntering metrics of Reine de (Queen of…), which could be early 80s Kate Bush with simmering bouzouki, lithe strings and an ending that goes straight to the Sahara.

The title track is a triptych. Over a cinematic, lavish backdrop, Snarky Puppy’s Michael League narrates Giannikou’s thinly vieied political parable about three girls facing down a thieving tiger .The song itself is a vengeful, indomitably pulsing blend of Romany swing, psychedelic cumbia and qawwali, maybe, up to a mighty, shivery, orchestrated coda.

Starry vibraphone lingers over a brisk, emphatic clave beat in Venin (Venom), Giannikou’s French lyrics commenting on the frustrations of love rather than geopolitics. The album winds up with the swirling, droning spacerock of Thiamandi. Count this among the most wildly ambitious and original albums of the past several months.