New York Music Daily

Love's the Only Engine of Survival

Tag: chamber pop

Sarah McQuaid’s Starkly Lyrical New Live Album Captures a Dark Zeitgeist

Songwriter Sarah McQuaid was into the early part of a marathon 2020 tour when live music was criminalized throughout most of the world. Since she’d planned on making a live album while on the road, she made one closer to home, solo acoustic in the charming, medieval Cornwall church where she sings in a choir. The result is the vinyl record The St Buryan Sessions, streaming at Bandcamp. McQuaid has made a lot of good, darkly pensive albums over the years and this might be the best of them all, a quasi greatest hits collection that promises to have lasting historical resonance, capturing the zeitgeist of a moment that the world would rather never revisit.

Even the guarded, seductive optimism of What Are We Going to Do, in the stark solo electric version here, is far more muted than the original. The record is notable right off the bat for having the only recording of McQuaid singing Sweetness and Pain – a troubled but ultimately hopeful, plainchant-inspired mini-suite – as a contiguous whole. She does that a-cappella, taking advantage of the church’s rich natural reverb and what could be more than a two-second decay.

That reverb also enhances both McQuaid’s guitar and piano work. There’s a similarly resolute sense of hope through dark times in the second song, The Sun Goes On Rising. McQuaid’s voice is strong anyway, and here she reaches back for power to match the anxiousness and uncertainty.

If We Dig Any Deeper It Could Get Dangerous – what a song title for the fall of 2021, right? – brings to mind Richard Thompson‘s solo acoustic work, McQuaid starkly fingerpicking an enigmatic blues behind her loaded imagery. For the record, the vocal harmonies are live loops.

She switches to piano for The Silence Above Us, a brooding, slow, nocturnal waltz which seems practically prophetic, considering the events of 2020. One Sparrow Down is an understatedly grim little swing tune about a cat-and-bird game, McQuaid backing herself with just a kickdrum.

The sparkling open-tuned guitar melody of Charlie’s Gone Home, one of McQuaid’s earliest songs, contrasts with the elegaic narrative. The rainy-day jazz guitar backdrop dovetails more closely with the volcanic portents of Yellowstone, McQuaid capping it off with a slashing flourish.

Time to Love is the sparest, most hypnotic number here and makes a good segue with her similarly sparse cover of Autumn Leaves where she really airs out her upper register. Live vocal loops enhance the somber reflections on mass mortality that pervade In Derby Cathedral: yesterday the church crypt, tomorrow the world.

McQuaid loves open tunings, best exemplified by her eerily echoing, chiming, increasingly macabre phrasing over an ominously swooping bassline in the instrumental The Day of Wrath, That Day. She keeps the subdued atmosphere going in, the pall lifting a little in The Tug of the Moon.

She returns to piano, adding gravitas to Michael Chapman’s Rabbit Hills, pulling it closer toward pastoral Pink Floyd territory. The closing number, Last Song is a requiem for McQuaid’s mom – a musician herself – and a reflection on the enduring strength of intergenerational traditions.

Sarah Aroeste Brings a Vanished Balkan Hub of Sephardic Culture Back to Life

Ladino singer Sarah Aroeste‘s cousin Rachel Nahmias survived the Holocaust, smuggled across the border from Macedonia to Albania in the trunk of a car. A Muslim family there hid her from the Nazis for the duration of the war. At 103, she’s still with us.

Her family wasn’t so lucky. After the Nazis took them off to Treblinka, a neighbor pulled the mezuzah (a religious home-sweet-home totem) off the door of their home, planning on giving it back to them when they were liberated. Along with more than seven thousand, mostly Sephardic Macedonian Jews, they never made it back. At times like this we need to remember the Holocaust. Evil was in full bloom then, and it’s in full bloom now: ask an Israeli or an Australian.

Aroeste’s latest album Monastir -streaming at Bandcamp – celebrates the rich history of the Macedonian city now known as Bitola, where her ancestors had roots before leaving for the US in 1913. There’s a small army of Israeli and Macedonian musicians on this, playing a mix of Sephardic and Macedonian folk songs and originals.

Aroeste sings the opening track, a hypnotic, mantra-like anthem celebrating a newborn’s arrival, with a restrained joy, Yonnie Dror getting his shofar to channel dusky digeridoo lows. Vevki Amedov’s magically microtonal Balkan clarinet joins with an animated choir in the irrepressibly jaunty Od Bitola Pojdov (Bitola Girls). Crooner Yehoram Gaon sings an elegantly bolero-flavored take of the Ladino lost-love ballad Jo La Keria over producer Shai Bachar’s elegant piano and Dan Ben Lior’s acoustic guitar.

Odelia Dahan Kehila and Gilan Shahaf join voices on a gorgeous, bittersweetly undulating new Hebrew take of the popular Balkan folk song Jovanke, Jovanke, reinvented as a glittering piano-based ballad. Sefedin Bajramov takes over the mic on Edno Vreme Si Bev Ergen, a lilting, carefree Macedonian folk tune about a guy on the prowl who meets a cute Jewish girl – and wants to be Fyedka to her Chava.

A Bitola children’s choir sing Estreja Mara, a popular post-WWII tribute to a freedom fighter killed by the Nazis at 21. Macedonian opera star Helena Susha sings En Frente de Mi Te Tengo, a brass-fueled ranchera-style ballad.

One of the album’s most dramatic, flamenco-tinged numbers is Aroeste’s original version of Espinelo, a medieval tale of an infant thrown into the ocean as a newborn since he was one of a pair of twins, considered at the time to be bad luck. He survives and goes on to Balkan fame. Baglama player Shay Hamani and kanun player Yael Lavie enhance the brooding Middle Eastern ambience.

The album’s final two tracks pay homage to Aroeste’s ancestral city. She leads a rousing, plaintive choir over an intricate web of acoustic guitars in an original, Mi Monastir, then soars over a bouncy backdrop in Bitola, Moj Roden Kraj, an early 50s hit for Macedonian folk-pop singer Ajri Demirovski. This an all-too-rare work of musicological sleuthing that’s just as fun to listen to as it is politically important.

Sparely Powerful, Lyrical Catalan Songcraft From Singer Lia Sampai

One of the most stunningly direct, potently lyrical albums of the year is Lia Sampai’s latest release Amagatalls de Llum (rough unpoetic translation from Catalan: Hidden in Plain Sight), streaming at youtube. Sampai sings with a disarmingly intimate, nuanced delivery and writes striking, imagistic lyrics, with a fearless political sensibility. Her images can be charming and quirky one second and venomous the next. While there’s a definite flamenco influence in her music, there are also elements of Portuguese fado, pan-Mediterranean balladry, art-rock and tinges of jazz, nimbly negotiated by acoustic guitarist Adrià Pagès. Some of the songs are simply guitar and vocals, others feature terse strings in places.

She opens with La Caixeta (The Box), a stately, romantic waltz that’s part fado, part flamenco and part vintage Parisian chanson. The doll imagery in the sparse, angst-fueled second track, La Nina comes across as more of a reflection on reconnecting with an inner conscience than with an inner child, Lia Manchón’s violin and Ester Trilla’s cello adding pensive ambience.

La Nit del Foc (Night of Fire) is a coy mashup of a dramatic Spanish waltz and a Dylanesque talking blues. Sampai follows a suspenseful trail of eerie, allusive images, up to a duende-fueled peak in Pinyols de Gel (Hailstorm), Pagès’ attack growing more unhinged along with her.

The shapeshifting political broadside Una Llum (A Light) is a real stunner, a slap upside the head of a petty tyrant whose insatiable desire for control backfires and ignites a revolution. Sampai wrote this in 2019, but it has infinite more resonance in the year where the World Economic Forum terrorists are throwing everything they have at us to try to keep their global takeover attempt from going off the rails.

Iris is a delicately waltzing, enigmatic, metaphorically loaded narrative about a dancer (or maybe a stripper). Weeping willow metaphors take centerstage in the stark, grim Salze Vell:

Que dins de tant de vent lo plor és silenci,
Com una paraula que interdiu algú.
I les fulles se revolten encriptades
D’una música que sols entenem junts
Plorem per amunt!
Plorem per amunt!
Alcem un crit de pena i llibertat

[rough translation]

A scream drowned by the wind
Like a forbidden word
And the leaves spin, encrypted
With a music that only we understand
Let’s scream it!
Let’s scream it!
Scream from sadness, for freedom

The catchy, lilting Joc de Miralls (Game of Mirrors) seems to an examination of how recognizing your shadow in someone else can be liberating, if a little scary.

Pagès’ starry electric guitar rings out over Emili Bosch’s synth in Astronautes, a playful outer-space love song. Sampai winds up the album with the understatedly haunting L’Endemà (The Day After), the strings lush and moody as Gerard Morató’s piano mingles with Lluís Pérez-Villegas’ glockenspiel. Sampai’s Christmas party narrative is joyous and not a little defiant, but there’s a sinister undercurrent. What a perfect song for a year when dictators are trying to tell us how many people we can invite to our private holiday celebrations.

Play For Today 9/7/21

Been awhile since there’s been a playlist on this page, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of entertaining singles floating around. Here’s a fun and informative self-guided mix: the links in the song titles will take you to each one.

The Brooklyn Boogaloo Blowout are best known for their latin soul jams, but they’re a lot more eclectic than their name implies. The most electrifying song on their live album is Sheba, an Ethiopiques-tinged surf song

Louisiana rocker Rod Gator‘s Wanna Go for a Ride is the Clash’s version of Brand New Cadillac, as the Legendary Shack Shakers might have done it, darker and grittier with a guitar solo to match

Acoustic Syndicate‘s cover of the Grateful Dead classic Bertha has a tightness and a snarl that the original band sometimes let slip away. “Test me test me test me test me, why don’t you arrest me?” What a theme the lockdown era!

It makes a good segue with one you probably know, RC the Rapper‘s Just Say No, one of the big boombox hits from this summer’s protests here in the US. “It isn’t a theory if it keeps coming true.”

The smooth reggae grooves of Micah Lee’s No Lockdowns keep the inspiration flowing (thanks to the fearless folks at Texans For Vaccine Choice for this one).

The breathing metaphors and carefree sounds of children laughing on the playground in Alma’s Sips of Oxygen are a much subtler kind of commentary: “Someone in the doorway, hope they’re not afraid of them.”

Marianne Dissard and Raphael Mann’s delicate chamber pop duet reinvention of Townes Van Zandt’s If I Needed You is the great lost track from Nico’s Chelsea Girl album….with a woman who can hit the notes on the mic.

Let’s end this with something equally artful and poignant: Danny Wilkerson‘s Endless Haze, the best and least Beatlesque song on the new reissue of his very Fab Four-influenced 2018 solo debut album. The stark haggardness of the Boston Symphony Strings back his playfully lyrical but wounded chronicle of losing a battle with the bottle.

Individualistic, Energetic, Anthemically Genre-Defying Songs From Singer Elena Mîndru

Elena Mîndru writes imaginative, individualistic, elegant songs that bridge the worlds of art-rock, jazz and Finnish folk music. She sings in solid, expressive English, with an understated power from the lows to the highs, has a socially aware worldview and an inspired, versatile band. Her new album Hope is streaming at Bandcamp.

She opens the album with the title track, a lithely bouncy tale of eco-disaster, narrowly averted. As Mîndru sees it, people are waking up, hopefully in time to pull the world back from the brink of self-combustion. Violinist Adam Bałdych shifts from spiky funk to sinuous, leaping phrases and back, handing off to pianist Tuomas J. Turunen over the increasingly bustling rhythm from bassist Oskari Siirtola and drummer Anssi Tirkkonen

Mîndru doesn’t leave the global warming warnings there. In Hay Moon, she builds a metaphorically-charged storm tableau as the band rise to a big art-rock crescendo, Bałdych’s multitracked pizzicato adding a bucolic energy, up to a big flurrying coda.

Foliage begins as a vivid portrait of light-dappled leaves via piano and pizzicato violin. Then Mîndru makes it into a dramatic, optimistic waltz spiked with bracing violin and vocalese. Run Away brings to mind a famous minor-key Police hit from the 80s, followed by Blackberry, a moody miniature blending resonant bass and violin with Mîndru’s wordless vocals.

She goes back to waltz territory, more minimalistically, with Blueberry, a soaring, plaintively bowed cello bass solo at the center. Lost Boys has an altered clave rhythm and a crisply bounding piano melody, Mîndru contemplating how to create a movement with genuine critical mass. A prime question for us these days, right?

She follows Luca, a rhythmically shapeshifting portrait of childhood wonder, with an attempt to elevate the Police’s Walking on the Moon to something above what it was: ok, Mîndru’s goofy approach beats the original. There’s also a sprightly, dynamic bonus track, Between a Smile and a Tear, contrasting Mîndru’s purist jazz scatting with Bałdych’s most sizzling solo here.

Delicate, Warmly Enveloping Music For Harp and Guitar From Mirabai Ceiba

Mirabai Ceiba play delicate, warmly thoughtful, often hypnotic pastoral themes on harp and guitar. Sometimes harpist Angelika Baumbach colors the music with simple piano phrases, intertwining with Markus Sieber’s meticulously fingerpicked acoustic guitar, along with occasional resonant electric textures. Their new album The Quiet Hour – streaming at Bandcamp – has an understatedly persistent, optimistic, meditative quality. As you might expect, this duo likes long songs.

The first track is titled Ma. Baumbach sings the gentle mantra “My heart” over and over as the loopy web of acoustic guitar and harp grows increasingly intricate behind her.

The pattern continues in She (an original, not the 60s pop hit), a stately series of syncopated triplet figures underpinning Baumbach’s low-key meditation on connecting with the archetypal female.

Harp Lullaby is exactly that – it reminds of Kurt Leege‘s starry jazz lullabies

Baumbach duets with guest Marketa Irglova in the hushed, bittersweet Britfolk-flavored Take on a Thousand Forms. Que Quede Escrito features a stark string section and minimalist piano: Baumbach sings this tender spiritual in her native Spanish.

The album’s big meditative loopmusic epic is Ra Ma. The duo close the record with The Time Given to Us, its most bucolic and folk-tinged but also most anthemic number. If you’re feeling stressed – and who isn’t right now? – give this a spin.

Fun fact: the duo’s bandname is a shout out to both pioneering medieval Indian feminist and composer Mira Bai, and also the Ceiba tree, sacred to Mayan mythology.

Lush, Majestic, Angst-Fueled Orchestral Rock Tunesmithing From Dot Allison

Songwriter Dot Allison opens her new album Heart Shaped Scars – streaming at Bandcamp – with the title track, a Britfolk-tinged tale of abandonment, starry fingerpicked guitar and spare piano over increasingly lush strings, her airy voice reaching for the rafters. It sets the stage for the rest of the record. Allison has a thing for ghosts and metaphorically loaded nature imagery. She likes to record a central vocal track and then layer another one way up in the stratosphere: Lisa Hannigan and Susanne Sundfor‘s more lavish, folk-inspired material comes to mind.

“Listen to what this corridor said,” Allison encourages in The Haunted, a tale of metaphorically loaded ghostly presences over a similar, slightly less symphonically lavish backdrop. Icy raindrop piano flickers above the strummy acoustic guitar of Constellations, a surreal mashup of sweeping chamber pop with tinges of hip-hop, a vibe she reprises with even more imaginative textures later in Cue the Tears..

She reaches for a breathier, more mystical delivery in the circling, mantra-like Can You Hear Nature Sing: “Can you hear through her tears, a myriad of melodies?” Allison asks. The angst hits fever pitch in Ghost Orchid. a stately, anthemic art-rock ballad spiced with some uneasy close harmonies: “We melt into the sun,” is the last line. Allison deserves a lot of credit for resisting the urge to turn this into full-blown High Romantic cliche.

The stark, Appalachian-tinged waltz Forever’s Not Much Time is a subtly venomous broadside that works on many levels: the creepy outro is priceless, and too good to give away. The message of One Love – an original – is not “let’s get together and feel all right,” but the devastating consequences of a garden left to die.

“We’ve got blood on our hands,” is Allison’s opening refrain in Love Died in Our Arms, another stab at orchestral hip-hop. She winds up the album a stark but ultimately optimistic, verdantly string-driven start-over theme, the closest thing to a medieval English ballad here.

Catchy, Bittersweet 60s Pop-Influenced Sounds and a Couple of Brooklyn Gigs From War Violet

Songwriter Jummy Aremu performs under the name War Violet. She writes catchy, anthemic, assertive songs and sings in a resonant, unpretentious voice. Her music has a strong 60s influence, both on the folk side and the pop side: Burt Bacharach-era Dionne Warwick is a good comparison. Aremu sold out the vinyl edition of her latest ep, Getaway, but it’s still streaming at Bandcamp. She’s at Our Wicked Lady on July 27 at 10 PM for $12. Then she’s at Pete’s on July 31 at 10 for the tip jar.

The first track on the record, Just For the Night is one of the most elegant songs ever written about a one-night stand, the synth orchestration sweeping over Arenmu’s spare guitar. “I’ve been to all of the parties in my day,” Aremu intones soberly in the album’s bossa-tinged second track: they must not have been much fun.

The big, exasperatedly poignant singalong here is the title track: “I don’t need this, I don’t need this,” is the mantra. With just emphatic acoustic guitar, snappy bass and a string synth, it’s simple, direct and will be wafting through your head for hours

The last track is I Hope I See You Again, a mix of sparkle and scruffiness: “Just look to the wall for answers big and small.” War Violet also has a Soundcloud page which probably predates the Bandcamp tracks and as you can imagine, the songs are rougher, but it shows she hit the ground running. Since last year’s lockdown, there’s been more attrition than ever in what you might call the rock scene here: good thing for us that War Violet stuck around.

Cellist Mia Pixley Puts Out a Thoughtful, Playful, Deceptively Deep Album of Soul Songs and Chamber Pop

Before she went solo, Mia Pixley was the cellist in the Debutante Hour, an all-female trio who charmed and needled New York audiences with their quirky, deceptively biting chamber pop throughout the late zeros and early teens. Since then, the individual members have done plenty of work on their own – Maria Sonevytsky in the worlds of Balkan and Ukrainian music, and Susan Hwang with the noir-tinged , cinematic Lusterlit and the erratically brilliant lit-pop collective the Bushwick Book Club.

On her new album Margaret in the Wild – streaming at Bandcamp – Pixley glides elegantly through undulating soul grooves and the occasional minimalist classical theme or chamber pop interlude. She plays bass and guitar voicings on the cello along with classical and blues phrasing, and her vocals have more depth and expressiveness than ever. Her supporting cast is first-rate: Ruth Davies and Kevin Goldberg sharing bass duties, Javier Santiago and Bryan Simmons each on piano, Luis Salcedo on guitar, Nahuel Bronzini contributing slide guitar and Wurlitzer, Barbara Higbie on mandolin, Aaron Kruziki on organ, Michaelle Goerlitz and Amelie Hinman on percussion, Isaac Schwartz on drums and Maryam Qudus on keyboards. This is one of those rare albums that sounds like nothing else that’s been released this year. Whatever you call this music – soul, cello rock, something that hasn’t been categorized yet – Pixley owns it.

She opens the record with Core, a terse but lushly orchestrated, nocturnally sweeping overture, the cello balanced by gentle, twinkly piano. In the Daylight, a lustrous, summery tableau, has Pixley’s lithe cello multitracks rising over a vamping lullaby. She follows with Good Taste, a slinky, catchy, soul and hip-hop-infused individualist’s anthem: “Don’t their education, don’t need their ok,” Pixley asserts. If songs like this got played on commercial radio, this would be the monster hit.

Mama’s Got Snacks is funkier, with a New Orleans groove and an amusingly aphoristic, defiantly feminist lyric. In Voices – a setting of a Christopher Shaw poem – Pixley reaches from hazy chamber pop to an assertively bouncy cello-rock theme.

The album’s centerpiece is Everything Is Slow Motion, which begins as a moody, mystical, gorgeously drifting tone poem awash in layers of cello and rippling piano before Pixley hits a trip-hop groove. It reminds of Nina Simone at her most avant-garde.

Pixley orchestrates a carefree, Malian-tinged tune in African Prayer – and is that a balafon, or just Pixley’s cello running through a pitch pedal? In Between Sound comes across as a sunny reverse image of Everything Is Slow Motion, with distant hints of Indian music and Bob Marley. She wraps up the album with Watering, an attractively rippling folk-pop tune with piano and guitar, the closest thing to the Debutante Hour here. There’s a lot of depth on this record: if we get to the point where there’s still enough of a reason to pull together a best-of-2021list, this should be on it.

Familiar, Heartwarming Faces in Friendly New Places

Music in New York is in a really weird place right now. We’re in the midst of the biggest market correction this city has ever seen. Part of that, the abrupt destruction of so many independent venues and the complete annihilation of what was left of the rock scene, is tragic.

But part of this market correction is long overdue.

As this blog predicted as far back as the mid-teens, we’re seeing a quiet explosion of community-based, artist-run spaces, most of them quasi-legal or even less so. That’s where audiences went during the lockdown. The corporate model they replaced is dead in the water. Seriously: does anyone think that the Mercury Lounge, with its apartheid door policy where proof of taking one of the deadly needles is required to get in, is going to survive the year?

In the meantime, the surviving off-the-beaten-path places are thriving. If you work or live in the Financial District, you might know Cowgirl Seahorse. It’s a friendly taco-and-beer joint at the far edge of the South Street Seaport at the corner of where Front Street meets the extension of Peck Slip. Since reopening, they’ve expanded their original Monday night Americana series to sometimes twice a week, and who knows how far they could take that.

It was heartwarming to the extreme to catch honkytonk band the Bourbon Express there over the Fourth of July weekend. With their signature guy/girl vocals and Bakersfield-style twang, they were prime movers in the scene at the original Hank’s before that place finally bit the dust at the end of 2018. This latest version of the band is just a trio, husband-and-wife team Brendan and Katie Curley on guitars along with their bassist holding down the groove.

Brendan is a twangmeister, and so is Katie, but on vocals rather than guitar since she plays acoustic (when she’s not playing the concert harp on their albums). The resulting blend of voices is one of the most distinctive sounds in country: imagine Waylon Jennings duetting with Amy Allison. This set was mostly covers, which was unusual for them, but it showed their roots.

The best number of the night was Jukebox in My Heart, Katie’s fond tribute to the joys of vintage vinyl. A brief, no-nonsense version of Vern Gosdin’s Set ‘Em Up Joe was a perfect example of how deep these two dig for their inspiration.

Brendan ran his Telecaster through a flange for period-perfect 70s ambience in a countrified take of Danny O’Keefe’s 1969 pillhead lament Goodtime Charlie’s Got the Blues. Katie sometimes sings with a vibrato you could drive a semi-truck through, so it was almost funny that she held back on that during her take of Freddy Fender’s Until the Next Teardrop Falls. They made their way soulfully from the 50s through the 70s with songs by Buck Owens and Emmylou Harris, along with a robust version of Soulful Shade of Blue by Buffy Sainte-Marie and a totally Nashville gothic Jolene. With the easygoing crew behind the bar, shockingly good sound and a steady stream of delivery orders moving out the front door, it was almost as if this was 2014 and this was the old Lakeside Lounge.

Then the next weekend Serena Jost played a solo show at the Five Myles gallery in Bed-Stuy. In almost twenty years, it’s been a hotspot for adventurous jazz, hip-hop and dance as well as art that reflects the neighborhood’s gritty past a lot more than its recent whitewashing. Jost fits in perfectly. Most cello rockers don’t play solo shows, but cello rock is unconventional by definition and so is Jost. Throughout a tantalizingly brief show singing to the crowd gathered out front on the street, she aired out her lustrous, soaring voice, an instrument that’s just as much at home singing Bach cantatas as it is with her own enigmatic, enticingly detailed, riff-driven songs.

In recent years, the onetime founding member of Rasputina has found a much more minimalist focus, perfect for playing solo (she switched to acoustic guitar for a couple of numbers). Still, it was the most epic, ornate material that was the most breathtaking, most notably a subtly undulating, singalong take of the big, triumphant anthem Great Conclusions and an aptly majestic, absolutely gothic, sometimes stygian new song inspired by the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. Jost spent the lockdown by writing up a storm of new material, something we’ll hopefully get to see more of, most likely at spaces like this one.