New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Tag: chamber pop

Darkly Eclectic Composer Jay Vilnai Releases His Most Haunting Album

Guitarist Jay Vilnai is one of Brooklyn’s most individualistic, consistently interesting composers. Over the years, he’s led a fiery Romany-rock band, Jay Vilnai’s Vampire Suit and made acerbic chamber music out of Shakespearean poetry. He’s also the lead guitarist in another wild, popular Slavic string band, Romashka. His latest album, Thorns All Over – a collection of new murder ballads with text by poet Rachel Abramowitz, streaming at Bandcamp – is one of his best projects so far. In fact, it could be the most lurid, Lynchian indie classical album ever made. Vilnai is playing the album release show at Arete Gallery in Greenpoint on June 6 at 7 PM, leading a trio with violinist Skye Steele and singer Augusta Caso. Cover is $15.

The allbum’s Pinter-esque plotline follows a series of jump cuts. Likewise, the rhythms shift almost incessantly, enhancing a mood of perpetual unease. Vilnai layers eerily looping piano, desolately glimering tremolo guitar and evil, twinkling vibraphone up to a savage crescendo in the album’s opening track, The Lake: it’s all the more haunting for how quietly and offhandedly the narrator relates what happens along the shore that night.

Vilnai builds a skronky maze of counterpoint in tandem with Reuben Radding’s bass in A Woman or a Gun, a surreal mashup of what could be Ted Hearne indie opera, John Zorn noir soundtrack tableau and Angelo Badalamenti taking a stab at beatnik jazz.

“I took her to the dark forest to see if she would light the way,”Vilnai intones over gloomy pools of piano, as the band make their way into The Forest. A chamber ensemble of Skye Steele on violin, Oscar Noriega on clarinet, Ben Holmes on trumpet, Katie Scheele on English horn and David Wechsler on alto flute build a gently fluttering tableau, a sarcastic contrast with the story’s ugly foreshadowing.

A ghostly choir – Quince Marcum, Laura Brenneman and Jean Rohe – join in an echoing vortex behind Vilnai’s stately angst in Heartbreak. He layers grim low-register guitar, coldly starlit piano and enveloping atmospherics in the title track, up to a squirrelly mathrock crescendo amd slowly back down: this love triangle turns out to be a lot stranger than expected.

The album’s macabre final diptych is The Night We Met: Noriega’s moody clarinet rises over creepy, lingering belltones, Vilnai’s minimalist guitar lurking in the background. It concludes as a glacially waltzing dirge. Count this as one of this year’s most haunting and strangest records: you’ll see it on the best albums of 2019 page here in December.

A Rare City Park Show and a Mighty, Harrowing New Suite From Stephanie Chou

For the last couple of years, Barnard College has staged an amazingly eclectic, entertaining annual concert under the trees in the crabapple grove in Riverside Park just north of 91st Street. This years’s festival is this Satruday night, May 18, starting at 5 PM with one of New York’s most socially relevant and ambitious jazz talents, alto saxophonist/singer Stephanie Chou. This time out she’ll be leading a trio with pianist Jason Yeager and drummer Ronen Itzik Other acts on the bill include the Bacchantae, Barnard College’s all-female a cappella group, ferociously dynamic, tuneful, female-fronted power trio Castle Black, and the Educadorian-flavored Luz Pinos Band

Chou’s latest larger-scale project is titled Comfort Girl. It’s a harrowing, phanstasmagorical song cycle based on the terrors faced by the over two hundred thousand women who were forced into sexual slavery during the Japanese occupation of China during World War II. Some of those women were raped thousands of times. To add insult to injury, when those who survived were able to return home after the Japanese retreat, many of them were shunned. Chou debuted it at Joe’s Pub at the end of March. What was most striking about the show was not only Chou’s ability to shift between musical styles, but her prowess as a lyricist.

A flurry from Kenny Wollesen’s drums signaled the intro to the jaunty march Manchurian Girl, a late 30s Chinese pop hit. The lyrics are innocuous: a young woman waiting for her boo to return home so she can tie the knot. Chou sang it with more than a hint of foreshadowing, the music rising to a shivery tightness, Andy Lin’s vibrato-tinged violin over his sister Kelly Lin’s emphatic piano.

Narrator Peregrine Heard continued the story; girl meets boy and everything seems rosy in the countryside, echoed by a sax-violin duet that began coyly and then took on a swirling, triumphantly pulsing tone which turned wary and enigmatic as the two diverged harmonically.

The violinist switched to the even more shivery, plaintive-toned erhu fiddle for a Chinese parlor-pop ballad of sorts, Forever I Will Sing Your Song, crooner Orville Mendoza’s anticipatory drama contasting with Chou’s more demure delivery. The music grew suddenly chaotic as Japanese soldiers crushed the wedding ceremony, knocking out the groom and tearing his bride away.

Surrealistic piano glimmer over Wollesen’s noir percussion ambience supplied the backdrop for Chou’s wounded vocals in Shattered. Mendoze sang the pretty straight-up, determined piano rock ballad after that, the groom determined to get his beloved back. Meanwhile, she’s being paraded through one of the Japanese rape camps – the euphemistically named “Jade Star Hotel” – along with a group of captives. The piece’s simple military chorus was as chilling as any moment through the show, as was the haunting, phamtasmagorical waltz after that; “No name,, no hope: No life”

The young woman was thrown into a a cell, got a new Japanese name, and with a portentous crescendo and diabolical flickers from the violin, the music became a horror film score, It would have been historically accurate for the music to remain a morass of atonalities and cruel slashes punctuated by brief, mournful stillness, but Chou went deeper, with an aptly aching, Chinese-language ballad, her narravor terrified that her husband-to-be will reject her after all she’s had to suffer.

A coldly circling interlude captured the soldiers in line waiting for their turn with the “military provisions,” as the women were called. “We can do whatever we want to do,” Mendoza’s narrator sniffeed. A haunting, Pink Floyd-tinged interlude depicted her fiance giving up his search, miles away; Chou’s heroine remained defiant through a vindictive, venomous English-language anthem.

A spare, bucolic folk song – the kind the women would sing to remind each other of home – was next on the bil, followed by an anxious but undeterred ballad sung by Mendoza. Kelly Lin’s plaintive Debussy-esque crescendos lit up the number after that.

Flourishes from violin and sax underscored the young woman’s determination to beat the odds and survive, via a variation on the earlier, soul-tnnged revenge anthem. Unlike most of her fellow captives, this woman was able to escape, the piano driving a deliciously redemptive theme. And although her future husband realizes at the end that as she makes is back to her old village, “There’s still someone in there,”most of these women were not so lucky. Good news: Chou plans to release the suite as a studio recording.

Lurid, Creepy, Lush String Sounds on Natalia Steinbach’s New WaterLynx Album

Violinist Natalia Steinbach turns into a haunting, carnivalesque one-woman string orchestra on her new WaterLynx ep, streaming at Bandcamp. On one hand, it’s as grand guignol and gothic AF; on the other it’s not cliched either. That’s a fine line, and Steinbach manages to walk it…in black six-inch stilettos, one assumes. The former member of the alternatively lush and assaultive Naked Roots Conducive duo with cellist Valerie Kuehne is playing the album release show at Pine Box Rock Shop on May 16 at 9:30 PM.

Steinbach opens the album with a big, pulsing, angst-fueled ballad, Moonlight in Decay, switching back and forth between a creepy waltz and a more straightforwardly anthemic theme. There’s klezmer and Romany influences in the moody minor-keys; “Having trouble seeing when the lights are in full bloom,” she alludes in her dramatic, colorful soprano.

Steinbach sings Don’t Tempt Me – a setting of an embittered, distraught Evgeny Baratynsky poem – in the original Russian, over a plaintively swaying arrangement akin to what Tschaikovsky would have done with a folk lament. Then she switches gears with the insistent, lyrically torrential, sardonically desperate Breathe in Nothing, her one-woman string section flickering up some delicious chromatics.

The album’s final cut is There Is No Demon, a steady, dancing anthem with an intro like Vivaldi on acid, and gorgeously macabre vocal harmonies on the chorus: it’s the album’s most venomous track. Fans of the dark and dramatic, from the little girls who crushed on Lorde, to the vets who prefer Rasputina and Carol Lipnik, ought to give this often spine-tingling collection a spin.

A Rare NYC Show by Distantly Menacing, Icily Sepulchral Shapeshifters Dollshot

It might seem hard to imagine free jazz stalwarts like drummer Mike Pride and microtonal saxophonist Noak Kaplan making a  80s-influenced rock record. Add JACK Quartet cellist Kevin McFarland to the mix and the idea gets even more suspicious. Except that this actually happened – and the record turned out to be fantastic.

Dollshot – whose core is Kaplan and his otherworldly singer wife Rosalie – put out a monster debut album back in 2011. Mixing the sardonic and the sinister, the duo twisted early Second Viennese School songs into bizarre shapes when they weren’t writing their own surreal, carnivalesque originals, spinning the sounds of the early 20th century avant garde through a smoky funhouse mirror from the jazz loft scene of the 60s and 70s. It took them six more years before they made Lalande, a new wave-inflected record which in an icier way is just as menacing, and streaming at youtube. Reputedly there’s a follow-up in the works: you might hear songs from both at their show tomorrow night, March 11 at 10 PM at Coney Island Baby. Cover is $8.

The album’s opening track, Paradise Flat comes across as a mashup of techy 80s Peter Gabriel and French postpunk-popsters Autour de Lucie, Wes Matthews’ starry keys balanced by the dry, crisp syncopation of Pride’s drums and Peter Bitenc’s bass, sax wafting subtly overhead. Rosalie Kaplan’s inimitably sepulchral, high soprano vocals are so pitch-perfect they’re scary – there’s deadly nightshade in the tenderness of her delivery.

With its martial drum flurries and Kaplan’s sotto-voce shifts, the second track, Gimbal seems to be a chilly 80s update on the Jefferson Airplane’s White Rabbit, McFarland’s austere lines calm amid a maze of dripping sonic stalactites. Dollshot also have a very funny side, which bubbles up in Circulate Stop, Kaplan’s spoken word cadavre exquis lyrics over ominously wafting ambience.

She rises matter-of-factly from somber to soaring over Matthews’ melancholy neoromantic piano throuhout the album’s title track, its most majestic, anthemic number. The backdrop of Swan Gone is a Bride of Frankenstein stroll, Kaplan’s enigmatic, almost-imploring voice overhead.

Ichor (meaning blood of the gods) is mashup of the debut album’s warptone surrealism and syncopated 70s Genesis, but with a nimbler rhythm section. Cythera seems to be a torch song parody, Kaplan’s gentle, feathery vocals taking a barrage of spitballs from the rest of the band.

Birds of the West, the closest thing to oldschool 80s new wave pop here, has stabbingly insistent keys balanced by dreamy vocals. The next-to-last cut, She, begins austerely with Kaplan’s wounded resonance amidst horror movie music-box sonics, and picks up steam from there, a march toward a grim ending you can see coming a mile away. The album ends elegantly and not a little enigmatically with Nacht und Traume. All this is reason to look forward to whatever other strangely captivating sounds the band can conjure up on the next record.

An Intimate Lower East Side Gig by Haunting Art-Rock Songwriter Joanna Wallfisch

There are two kinds of road songs. The more common ones celebrate freedom, the other celebrate escape. The second track on singer/multi-instrumentalist Joanna Wallfisch’s most recent album Blood & Bone – streaming at Bandcamp – is the other kind. It’s a chillingly propulsive narrative inspired by her 2016 California tour, which she made by bike.

I change my background story
Every time somebody asks
I have worn so many masks…
Winding down the windows
Letting in in the breeze
Breathing in the ashes
Of burning redwood trees
Time moves parallel to motion
It’s a traveler’s disease
We are all escapees

Wallfisch is playing the small room at the Rockwood on Jan 4 at 9 PM, an intimate opportunity to get to know her often slashingly lyrical, individualistic mix of majestic orchestrated rock, elegant parlor pop and jazz.

Jess Elder’s tinkling piano mingles with Wallfisch’s delicate uke and Kenneth Salters’ atmospheric cymbal washes in the album’s optimistic opening ballad, The Ship. Over swooshy organ and surreal electric piano, Wallfisch unleashes years’ worth of pent-up venom in The Shadow of Your Ghost, one of the alltime great kiss-off anthems. “You counted every moment that we spent, like a poor man counts each miserable cent,” she sings with a misty regret – and it only gets better from there. Elder’s titanic organ solo is one of the album’s high points.

The lush sweep of the towering seduction anthem Dandelions, awash in starry keyboard textures, is vastly more optimistic. The brooding counterpoint of the Solar String Quartet float above Elder’s circular, minimalist piano riffs in Anymore, a terse, bitter breakup ballad. The album’s catchiest song, capped off by an ornately gritty glamrock guitar solo by Elias Meister, is Lullaby Girl, which could be peak-era mid-70s ELO. Wallfisch’s allusively imagistic portrait of an unnamed musician’s grimly elusive search for some kind of inner peace packs a wallop.

‘In Runaway Child, Wallfisch builds a coyly detailed, Tamara Hey-esque tale of breaking free,over the boleroish pulse of Pablo Menares’ bass and Elder’s calypsonian toy piano. The group follow the starry, wistful piano-and-cello ballad Summer Solstice with Choices, a chromatically bristling, cabaret-tinged 6/8 anthem. Imagine Linda Thompson fronting Procol Harum: “The witching hour closes in fast…by dancing in circles, we’ll end up in flames.”

The hushed Solitude in a Song – Wallfisch sharing some surprising insights into how she writes – is the album’s most minimalist track. She goes back to cabaret-rock with The Truth, an anxious, brief mellotron-and-piano number. The album’s most traditional, commercial number is Bo Ba Bo; Wallfisch brings it full circle with the title track, Blood and Bone, a dancing, waltzing, Mozartean parlor pop number. Wallfisch deserves to be vastly better known than she is.

Harrowing Levels of Meaning in Rose Thomas Bannister’s Psychedelic Art-Rock Masterpiece

The best album of 2018 is also one of the shortest. Singer/multi-instrumentalist Rose Thomas Bannister’s third full-length release, Ambition – streaming at Bandcamp – has enormous relevance in an era of narcisssism run amok. She has never sung more subtly or written with more acerbic, sometimes venomous levels of meaning than she does here. Strings and horns in places add both orchestral lushness and smoky jazz flavor to the five constantly shapeshifting, psychedelic tracks. They rank with the A-side of any great lyrical rock record ever made: Elvis Costello’s Armed Forces, Richard & Linda Thompson’s Shoot Out the Lights, Hannah vs. the Many’s Ghost Stories…and for sheer musical ambition and imaginative orchestration, ELO’s Eldorado.

This is a high-concept album, commissioned for a dance production of Macbeth. Reduced to simplest terms – a dangerous thing to do with Bannister’s work – it’s about violence and understanding its motivations, and its perpetrators. She quotes liberally from Shakespeare, but neither the songs nor the suite as a whole follow the narrative of the play. Betrayal is an ever-present, seething undercurrent.

The title track opens as ominous waltz, with a creepy flurry of guitars – Bob Bannister’s distantly wary Strat along with the bandleader’s steady acoustic:

Star fires
Don’t look at my desires
Bright eye
Don’t look at my hands
Sharp knives
See not the wound it makes
Until i get what’s mine

As the song shifts into a slow, hypnotic 5/4 groove, Greg Talenfeld’s grimacing, contorted lead guitar moves to the forefront, in contrast to the vitriolic elegance of the vocals.

Gary Foster’s drums and Matthew Stein’s bass shift from a wary stroll to tensely circling triplets as Banquo’s Book picks up steam. Susan Alcorn’s pedal steel adds big-sky ambience to this metaphorically loaded saga of birdwatching and then escape:

The moon is getting burnt out
It looks like rain
I stated my opinion
I was never afraid
What time is it my son
Why don’t you hang onto this gun
I don’t believe in fate
But if you can get away I’ll guard the gate

William for the Witches is the album’s most overtly Shakespearean and psychedelic track, opening with sinister theatricality and closing with a surreal exchange of voices, echoing X as much as Arthur Lee:

It’s so easy to make them go crazy
So fun to watch them go to town
So much fun to watch them mow each other down

The jaunty As Birds Do is not about what you might imagine, this being inspired by the Bard and his dirty mind Alcorn’s steel adds surreal Tex-Mex flavor, Erik Lawrence’s gruff sax paired against Steven Levi’s bright cornet for extra sarcasm:

All is the fear, nothing is the love
Little is the wisdom when he fires away
Go back to school yourself
Tell me what is noble, tell me what’s judicious
In these faceless days

The coda, and key to the story is Lady M. which begins broodingly and then rises to another faux-mariachi interlude. The symbolism is murderous:

Have you eaten of the root?
My mother
That takes reason prisoner
Have you swallowed
The bitter pages?
You spurred them on

When Bob Bannister’s sotto-voce vocals loom in low on the next line, “Your children will be kings,” the vengeful sarcasm reaches new levels. Don’t ever, ever mess with a songwriter. You can brutalize them, fight them in court, even steal their children, but they always get even in the end. Rose Thomas Bannister’s next gig is January 19 at 8 PM on a a twinbill at the Jalopy with Americana songstress Erin Durant and Philly Goat

Spottiswoode at Joe’s Pub: Elegant Dissolution

The most unselfconsciously beautiful solo during Spottiswoode’s album release show at Joe’s Pub Friday night came during the louchest song of the evening. Candace DeBartolo added subtle flourish to her deep-Coltrane tenor sax resonance during a number titled Love Saxophone. For anyone who hasn’t already guessed, you need a Y chromosome to own one. Frontman/guitarist Jonathan Spottiswoode said that at the time he’d written that one, he was “another person.”

There were many other unselfconsciously beautiful moments throughout the night. Still Small Voice Inside, one of the best tracks on the new album Lost in the City, comes across as cutting, knowingly aphoristic, Ray Davies-ish late 60s folk-rock. Onstage, the band played it even more mutedly – as it turns out, it has a spiritual dimension, inspired by a familiar saying by the bandleader’s North Dakota-born singer mom. Spottiswoode asked the sold-out crowd if they’d indulge him in a “kumbaya moment” on the vocalese section after the chorus: pretty much everybody sang along.

Another unexpected high point, if a similarly quiet one, was Batman & Robin. The band played this straight-up jazz song with elegance and grace, an expansively poignant, picturesque account of a guy trying to get the most out of weekend custody with his kids. Spottiswoode isn’t necessarily known as a jazz guitarist, but the song underscored whatever cred he wants to take from it.

There were plenty of loud songs, too, all of them drawn from the new album, since as lead guitarist Riley McMahon confided, this band never thought they’d never get back together after the bandleader’s recent relocation to his native London. Guest violinist Antoine Silverman’s shivery, slithery acerbic, Romany riffage kicked off The Walk of Shame, a booze-infused wee hours confrontation with grim reality. Throughout the show, Spottiswoode’s weathered baritone brought to mind Nick Cave, especially when he really cut loose. Knocking back several drinks – vodka cranberry, maybe? – during the set probably had something to do with that.

Trumpeter Kevin Cordt added ripe, Lynchian tones to raise the menace of the more cabaret-infused tunes. Bassist John Young switched nimbly between Fender and upright, drummer Tim Vaill maintaining a slinky, often latin-flavored groove and Spottiswoode fired off some unhinged blues licks during a couple of latin soul anthems. But the star of the night, musically, was pianist Tony Lauria. Shifting effortlessly between surreal Brecht/Weill blues, starlit neoromanticism, lively Afro-Cuban tumbles, funereal organ and even a perfect evocation of Springsteen pianist Roy Bittan, he put on a clinic in how to make the music match the mood. The group closed counterintuively and almost elegaically with I Don’t Regret, a calmly waltzing shout-out to Spottiswoode’s days living on East 5th Street, when the East Village was a hotbed of artistic talent. Those days are gone, for now anyway – but at least we have the album, and a group no worse for the wear and tear of 21 years together.

A Gorgeously Bittersweet Farewell to Manhattan from Art-Rock Maven Spottiswoode

The Manhattan that Jonathan Spottiswoode came up in back in the 1990s was far from perfect. The seeds of the city’s death by real estate speculation had already been sown. But there were a lot more places where an often witheringly lyrical, lavishly orchestrated rock band could play then than there are now. Spottiswoode & His Enemies may have sold out the release show for their latest magnum opus, Lost in the City, at Joe’s Pub on the 30th, but twenty-one years ago they could have done the same at a much bigger venue. So it’s fitting that the album – streaming at Bandcamp – is an elegaic salute to a vanished, urbane metropolis, and that Spottiswoode has since relocated to his London birthplace. At least we’ll always have the memories – and this epic.

While Spottiswoode is no stranger to largescale creations, this is arguably his most lavish release. He’s always had a knack for latin sounds, and he dives more deeply into the Spanish Caribbean here than ever before. The opening track is Hoboken. It’s dead ringer for a brooding Pink Floyd ballad: Spottiswoode’s voice has weathered to resemble Roger Waters more and more over the yearas, and Tony Lauria’s gospel-tinged piano completes the picture. The migthy Springsteenian bridge is spot-on, right down to Laura’s Roy Bittan impersonation. “I tried it like all the rest, not what I dreamed I guess, but I did ok,” Spottiswoode muses.

With its bluesy minor-key swing spiced with horn harmonies from saxophonist Candace DeBartolo and trumpeter Kevin Cordt, the title track could also be peak-era Springsteen. With Lauria’s erudite, Fever-ish solo at the center, it’s a long-lost cousin to 10th Avenue Freeze-Out. The nimble pulse of bassist John Young and drummer Tim Vaill propel the funny, filthy, syncopated latin soul anthem Love Saxophone, a look back to a period ten years further back, and several Manhattan blocks north and east. 

Antoine Silverman’s acerbic, Romany-flavored violin kicks off The Walk of Shame, a hauntingly orchestrated vignette of the dark side of the bright lights: “The night was so delicoius/Now a puddle is a mirror for Narcissus.” Then Cordt and trombonist Sara Jacovino work a punchy conversation in Because I Made You, a return to swinging oldschool soul.

The way Spottiswoode sets up the narrative in the distantly ominous, wistful clave-soul elegy Goodbye Jim McBride is too good to give away. The starkly bluesy, doomed, reverberating ambience of It’s on Me wouldn’t be out of place on Dylan’s Time Out of Mind album. Next, the band hit a slow, Lynchian swing groove with Batman & Robin, a disconsolate picture of a divorced dad out with his kids on the weekend.

Riley McMahon’s hailstone reverb guitar mingles with Lauria’s stern salsa piano and organ in Now Didn’t I? McMahon and the bandleader bulid spaghetti western menace over a 5/4 beat in Tears of Joy: as Lauria’s electric piano twinkles eerily overhead, it could be Botanica. Then the band hit a blazing soul-blues sway with Dirty Spoon.

A mashup of late 60s folk-rock Kinks and Springsteen E Street shuffle, Still Small Voice Inside could be the album’s most poignant, relevant number:

Hello, good evening
Did you accomplish what you planned?
Don’t you know the feeling
Too much supply no demand
Yeah it’s a drag, at least you tried
Now listen to the still small voice inside

Young’s big bass bends anchor McMahon’s lingering guitar and blues harp in Cry Baby. Wistful strings and Lauria’s elegant piano mingle in Sunset, a vivid, Ray Davies-esque vignette, followed by the wryly Waitsian swing blues Going Home for Christmas.

The album’s musical high point could be the swaying 6/8 noir soul instrumental East Village Melody, Cordt and then DeBartolo channeling wee-hours melancholy over the band’s glistening, distantly ominous backdrop. Spottiswoode’s gritty vocals soar in You’ll See, an unexpectedly optimistic Weimar waltz. The album winds up with I Don’t Regret, its lush strings and Leonard Cohen inflections: it’s an old rake’s colorful, defiant defense of a “sordid life.” The sounds on this album are old but timeless: it will age well, just like the guy who wrote it.

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.

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!