New York Music Daily

Music for Transcending Dark Times

Tag: chamber pop

Smart, Stormy, Fearless Art-Rock From Victoria Langford

Singer/multi-keyboardist Victoria Langford writes lush, sweeping yet very sharply sculpted songs. She has a strong, meticulously nuanced, expressive voice and a venomous sense of humor. She likes swirling, stormy orchestration and using religious imagery as a metaphor for interpersonal angst. Her debut album, simply titled Victoria, is streaming at Bandcamp. Imagine a more organic Radiohead, or a young Kate Bush at half the volume.

The album’s first track is Psalm, Langford’s spare Wurlitzer and insistent piano contrasting with Brett Parnell’s nebulous wash of guitars. The phantasmagoria hits redline with the second song, Coney Island, a harrowing, achingly intense tableau awash in a roar of sound and creepy canival effects:

I see stars
From the back
Of your hand
You bury me
Alive

At a moment in time when domestic abuse is rising with all this endless quarantining, the song has more relevance than ever.

Langford’s cynicism hits a peak in Savior, a brief, thumping parody of dancefloor pop:

You think everyone wants to fuck you
You are a victim or most wanted on the streets
You like to think that you are Kanye
But sitting on your ass won’t make those beats

I Found Hell Looking For Heaven is an instrumental, a majestic title theme of sorts, Leah Coloff’s stark cello blending with Langford’s symphonic keyboard orchestration. The string into to Boboli Gardens, cello bolstered by Sarah Goldfeather and Andie Springer’s violins, is even more plaintive, Langford’s piano shifting to a hazy, country-tinged sway.

The Radiohead influence comes through the most clearly in the slow, brooding What Might Have Been, right down to the glitchy electronics and tinkly multitracks behind the starkly circling piano riffs.

Rob Ritchie’s guitar lingers amid a whoosh of string synth over Joe Correia’s bass and Evan Mitchell’s drums in Be a Dragon, a surreal mashup of hip-hop and Radiohead with a fearless Metoo-era message. Langford winds up the record with The Truth, a pulsing, unapologetic escape anthem: It’s rare to see an artist come straight out of the chute with something this unique and individualistic, a stealth contender for best debut album of 2020.

Defying Category With Svjetlana Bukvich’s Rich, Dramatic Compositions

As a composer, Svjetlana Bukvich has made a career out of jumping off cliffs and landing on her feet. Few other artists are able to bridge such a seemingly ridiculous number of styles without seeming the least bit out of place. Most, but not all, of her vibrant, dramatic, often darkly bristling compositions are electroacoustic, imbued with an irrepressible joie de vivre as wel as both a striking clarity and embrace of the absurd. It seems that she just writes what she wants to and lets everybody else figure out how to categorize it..or just leave it alone and enjoy its vitality. Her new album Extension – streaming at Spotify – is by turns surreal, futuristic, troubling and triumphant.

She plays zither harp through a maze of effects, joined by Susan Aquila on electric violin and David Rozenblatt on percussion, on the album’s opening track, The Beginning, flitting space junk and dancing, pingponging phrases over stygian washes. Bukvich builds the hypnotically circling prelude Utopia around a simple, insistent, wordless vocal riff spiced with her own bright electric piano, flickers from Jacqueline Kerrod’s electric harp over terse syncopation from bassist Patrick Derivaz and drummer Wylie Wirth. Is this art-rock? Indie classical? Does it matter?

Singers Kamala Sankaram and Samille Ganges harmonize uneasily over Bukvich’s dancing synth lines in the album’s title track: imagine an Ethiopian contingent passing through Jabba the Hut’s space lounge. Once You Are Not a Stranger is featured in three different versions throughout the album. Derivaz dips low to open the first one, string quartet Ethel building a pensive series of echo riffs overhead.

Janis Brenner sings a much more minimalist take of the second over the composer’s spacious piano chords. The lush final version, which concludes the album, switches out the string quartet for the Shattered Glass String Orchestra,

Graves, with Bukvich joined by Kerrod, Wirth, Nikola Radan on alto flute and Richard Viard on acoustic guitar comes across as a moody, distantly Middle Eastern-tinged art-rock dirge. Sankaram brings both gentle poignancy and operatic flair to Tattoo, backed by Bukvich’s brooding piano and orchestration.

The bandleader switches to synth, teaming up with cellist Raphael Saphra and bassist Joseph Brock for Stairs, a similarly uneasy miniature. Then Jane Manning trades off with Sankaram over Bojan Gorišek’s piano and Bukvich’s wry electronics in the Balkan-inflected Nema Te (You Aren’t Here, You Aren’t There). Fans of acts as diverse as Radiohead, Peter Gabriel-era Genesis, exploding pianist Kathleen Supove and postminimalist composers like David Lang will love this stuff.

One of the World’s Sharpest, Funniest Song Stylists Salutes the Dearly Departed

Rachelle Garniez has gotten more ink from this blog than just about any other artist, starting with the very first concert ever reviewed here, an installment of Paul Wallfisch‘s fantastic and greatly missed Small Beast series in the late summer of 2011. Since then, she’s released plenty of studio material as well, from the song ranked best of 2015 here – the metaphorically searing, Elizabethan-tinged Vanity’s Curse, from her album Who’s Counting – to her charming, oldtimey-flavored An Evening in New York duo record with Kill Henry Sugar guitar wizard Erik Della Penna earlier this year.

The latest installment of Garniez’s recent creative tear is yet another album, Gone to Glory – streaming at Spotify – her first-ever covers record. The project took shape at a series of shows at East Village boite Pangea, beginning as an annual salute to artists who’d left us the previous year. The secret of playing covers is simple: either you do the song in a completely different way, or make it better than the original, otherwise it’s a waste of time. In this case, Garniez splits the difference between reinventions and improvements.

Playing piano, she opens the record with a quote that’s almost painfully obvious, but still too funny to give away. Then she switches to accordion over the strutting groove of drummer Dave Cole, bassist Derek Nievergelt and violist Karen Waltuch for a polka-tinged take of Motorhead’s Killed By Death. That’s the album’s funniest song, although most of the rest are equally radical reinventions: Garniez has a laserlike sense of a song’s inner meaning and teases that out here, time after time.

She does Prince’s Raspberry Beret as a country song and then discovers the slinky inner suspensefulness in a low-key, noir-tinged take of David Bowie’s Scary Monsters. It’s super creepier than the original, as is a slightly stormier version of Mose Allison’s Monsters of the Id. She switches to piano for a brooding, lush, string-infused version of Jimmy Dorsey’s My Sister and I, a World War II refugee’s tale originally sung by Bea Wain in 1941.

Aretha Franklin is represented twice. Garniez’s droning accordion imbues The Day Is Past and Gone with an otherworldly druid-folk ambience. Her whispery, subtle solo piano take of Day Dreaming is all the more sultry for its simmering calm and mutedly cajoling intensity. Her tender delivery of a pillowy, orchestrated version of Della Reese’s Don’t You Know has much the same effect.

She keeps the sepulchral stillness and poignancy going through a folky arrangement of Kenny Rogers’ disabled veteran’s lament Ruby Don’t Take Your Love to Town – it’s infinitely sadder than the original. Sharon Jones’ 100 Days, 100 Nights gets a dark bolero-tinged interpretation that rises to a brassy peak

Garniez mashes up a little Piazzolla into her gently lilting version of Frank Mills, from the Hair soundtrack, playing up the song’s stream-of-consciousness surrealism. Nancy Wilson’s How Glad I Am has a lush retro 60s soul vibe, in a Bettye LaVette vein.

Garniez’s spare, gospel-tinged piano and subued vocals reveal the battle fatigue in the worn-down showbiz narrative of Glenn Campbell’s Rhinestone Cowboy. She closes the record with an apt, guardedly hopeful cover of Leonard Cohen’s Anthem. There’s a crack in everything, and that’s how Rachelle Garniez gets in.

Big up to the rest of the ensemble, who elevate many of these songs to symphonic levels: violinists Paul Woodiel and Cenovia Cummins, violist Entcho Todorov, cellist Mary Wooten, french horn player Jacob Garniez, multi-reedman Steve Elson, trombonist Dan Levine, trumpeter John Sneider, harpist Mia Theodoratis, harmonica player Randy Weinstein and backing vocalists Amanda Homi and Jeremy Beck.

A Rare Chance to Score This Era’s Most Formidable Rock Songwriter’s Obscure Debut Album

Hannah vs. the Many frontwoman Hannah Fairchild released her debut album Paper Kingdoms under her own name in 2010. She and the first incarnation of the band played the release show at the tiny, long-defunct Park Slope boite Bar 4. That’s how the great ones get started.

The album pretty much sank without a trace. But just for today, May 1 it’s up at Bandcamp as a name-your-price download. On one hand, you could say that this is strictly for the diehards. On the other, it’s a fascinating blast from the past from a songwriter who would grow into one of the most witheringly lyrical, ferociously powerful rock tunesmiths ever.

At her blog (also recently resurrected), she looks back on the strategy and logistics (or lack thereof) for making a bedroom pop record on a secondhand laptop, playing all the instruments….with a broken ankle, no less. While a lot of these songs lack the focus and savagery of her breakout album, All Our Heroes Drank Here, and her valkyrie wail doesn’t cut loose to the extent that she’s let it in the years since, there are moments of vocal brilliance and embryonic craft that will take your breath away.

Fairchild would eventually reprise five of these songs for her ferocious 2013 short album Ghost Stories. Hearing the subdued take of All Eyes on Me – Fairchild’s Don’t Fear the Reaper – is a revelation. So is Poor Leander, with its slashingly detailed story of a poor schlub in way, way too deep for his own good; it cuts through just as ominously if a lot more quietly here. And who would have known how much new resonance the line about how “I’ve got my mask on and I’m slipping out the side door” – in the defiant individualist’s anthem Lady of the Court – would take on over the past few weeks? Grab this piece of history while it lasts.

A Quietly Harrowing Holocaust-Themed Debut Album From Dana Sandler

Singer Dana Sandler is releasing her debut album I Never Saw Another Butterfly today in honor of Holocaust Remembrance Day. It’s a poignant, individualistic, searingly relevant record – streaming at youtube – inspired by the 1959 book of the same name, a collection of art and poetry by children imprisoned and murdered by the Nazis in the Terezin concentration camp. Sandler likes disquieting modes: some of her songs bring to mind 80s rock band the Police, others the klezmer music she’s immersed herself in beyond her usual jazz idiom.

Each of the album’s sections is dedicated to poets in captivity there whose names we know – Pavel Friedmann, Franta Bass, and Alena Synkova-Munkova, one of the fewer than one hundred out of fifteen thousand children to survive the camp – as well as two other young poets whose names we don’t.

The first track, Dear Pavel is a brooding feature for Peter Kenagy’s flugelhorn over Carmen Staaf’s piano, Jorge Roeder’s bass and Sandler’s husband Austin McMahon’s drums. Sandler’s setting of Friedmann’s poem Butterfly, which inspired the book title, is a rippling, klezmer-tinged art-song, swaying on the wings of Staaf’s piano. “It went away, I’m sure because it wished to kiss the world goodbye,” Sandler sings wistfully: who wouldn’t do the same under the circumstances.

A brief, moody duet between clarinetist Rick Stone and Roeder introduce the diptych Home/The Old House, a setting of Bass texts beginning with an overcast intensity and lightening with the prospect of a possible return home – after all, many of the victims in the camps had no idea of the kind of horrors that lay in store. Sandler’s toddler daughter supplies the ending and bravely hits all the notes. After that, The Garden, a spare vocal-piano duet, is all the more hauntingly elegaic for its simplicity.

Kenagy’s flugelhorn returns to take centerstage in Dear Alena, another grey-sky theme. Synkova-Munkova was a fighter, and that defiance is visceral throughout the lyrics and Staaf’s tightly wound, kinetically precise riffs. The band follow with the tensely modal, swinging I’d Like to Go Alone, which has two ominous, richly resonant clarinet solos: Stone takes the first, Sandler’s old bandmate Michael Winograd the second, utilizing the melody of Ani Ma’amin, an imploring klezmer tune no doubt written out frantically by composer Azriel David Fastag in a cattle car on his way to Treblinka.

Tears, the last of the Synkova-Munkova poems, gets an especially tender interpretation from Sandler and a hopeful, low-key solo from Roeder over Staaf’s plaintive, lingering chords. With Sandler maintaining her modal unease over the horns and clustering piano, Dear Anonymous  speaks for itself.

Staaf’s glittering rivulets and Stone’s sailing alto sax solo reflect the escape metaphors implicit in On a Sunny Evening. The band close the album on a hopeful note with Birdsong/Butterfly Reprise. The heroic spirit of those would-be escapees is something to consider as we tackle a considerably less lethal crisis here at home.

Thoughtful, Carefully Crafted, Gospel-Tinged Songwriting From Christina Courtin

Since her Juilliard days in the early zeros, multi-instrumentalist Christina Courtin has shifted seamlessly between the worlds of classical, film music and low-key, pensive songwriting that sometimes fits into the chamber pop category. Her main axe is violin, but she’s also a competent guitarist. Her lyrics have a stream-of-consciousness feel that often masks a slashing sense of humor. Her latest album Situation Station is streaming at Bandcamp.

“If I had some money I’d take the train, take it further than faraway,” she sings on the album’s calmy lustrous opening track, Japanese Maple Tree. Chris Parker’s strummy acoustic guitar, Kenny Wollesen’s boomy drums, James Shipp’s muted vibraphone and Greg Cohen’s bass propel the suspiciously blithe, coldly sarcastic folk-pop tune Stare Into the Sun.

Pianist Danny Fox infuses Bouquet with a spare, gospel-tinged ambience, Courtin bringing in a lush orchestral arrangement. “Got my missile pointed right where I want it to be,” she asserts in Dear Lieder, which is even more skeletal: “If I blow up everyone I might just get some rest.”

The album’s most anthemic singalong is the triumphant Life So Far, with its gorgeous, gusty strings. Courtin returns to a soul-gospel vibe with the slowky crescendoing Matthew’s Wings, spiced with a terse slide guitar solo, and picks up that same warmth with a heftier arrangement a little later in Love Is a Season.

The most striking song here is the title track, Courtin tracing an idyllic childhood memory not likely to return, if ever, as the music shifts from overcast atmospherics to a jaunty ragtime strut. Fox moves to electric piano for Coyote Midnight, a simmering nocturne that could be about an abuser, or someone in politics. She closes the record with the gentle, elegaic You Held Me Up.

The last time this blog was in the house at one of Courtin’s gigs, it was at Barbes late on a Thursday night in the spring of 2018. Playing solo, she split the show between instrumentals and vocal numbers; her voice seemed clearer, less husky than it is on this record. It was a very calming, peaceful, enveloping performance, music to really get lost in, a welcome nightcap after a rather stuffy evening in one of the big midtown concert halls a couple of hours earlier.

Celestially Orchestral Lushness and Persistent Unease on Lisa Hannigan’s Live Album

We may not have concerts in New York right now, but more and more artists are realizing the benefits of recording live albums. Unless you make your albums on your phone – as many do – it’s infinitely cheaper to record a concert than to run up studio time. And live albums are the best advertising: prospective concergoers know exactly what they’re getting themselves into. One relatively recent one that perfectly fits the zeitgeist is Live in Dublin, by Lisa Hannigan and S t a r g a z e (that’s how she spells it), streaming at Spotify.

Hannigan has a soaring, nuanced voice and stately cadences that reflect the folk tradition of her native Ireland. Her lyrics are pensive and often rather dark. The concert’s opening waltz, Ora, perfectly capsulizes the balance of persistent unease and lush, starry atmosphere that will pervade the rest of the set. The long, sustained tones of the strings and woodwinds are a throwback to the terse orchestral arrangements common on European folk-rock records of the early 70s. Then the bass and drums kick in elegantly behind an upward swirl from the strings as the soul-tinged piano ballad Prayer For the Dying gets underway: Radiohead meets Renaissance.

Twinkling mandolin and vibraphone mingle above the increasingly lavish backdrop of Little Bird. “You are lonely as a church despite the queueing out the door – I am empty as a promise,” Hannigan muses.

Insistently slurry strings and ominous brass swells build unsettling druidic ambience in Undertow. Overtones rise in a similarly suspenseful vein from the low brass drone that introduces Bookmark, a swing ballad stripped to its bare, fingerpicked bones: “Am I a friend, or an unwieldy heroine?” Hannigan ponders.

The band take a break for the rustic vocal harmonies of Anahorish, which foreshadows what Irish immigrants would bring with them to Appalachia. The tenderness of Hannigan’s vocals bely the melancholy, pulsing orchestral textures of Nowhere to Go. The energy of the concert hits a high point with Lo, a moody anthem with a neat web of counterpoint.

They back away for a trip-hop sway with Swan, which the orchestra elevates above the level of generic 90s pop. A hushed gloom grows more enveloping in We the Drowned, up to a mighty, stricken intensity with eerie backing vocals and echo phrases from the orchestra: it’s the high point of the show. After that, there’s nowhere to go but down with Lille, a spare, gently fingerpicked, wistful folk-rock ballad.

After that, A Sail comes as a surprise, a stomping, insistent, backbeat anthem and the most unselfconsciously catchy song of the set. The group shift from hazy atmospherics to equally hypnotic but more energetic trip-hop with Barton and close the night with Fall, an attractively strummy anthem: “Drain the spirits from the jar, hop the fences, steal the car,” Hannigan instructs rather somberly.

A Picturesque, Symphonic Instrumental Suite From Marty Willson-Piper’s Atlantaeum Flood

Marty Willson-Piper is best known as this era’s preeminent twelve-string guitar player, and also as a witheringly brilliant songwriter. He’s also a composer. His latest album, One Day, credited to his Atlantaeum Flood project is streaming at Spotify. It’s his first all-instrumental suite, a day in the life of the planet from before sunrise to the wee hours of the next day. Willson-Piper’s bandmates here are Dare Mason and Steve Knott on guitars, Olivia Willson-Piper on violin and Lynne Knott on cello, rising together to an often titanic grandeur.

From a simple, fingerpicked four-chord acoustic guitar theme, Willson-Piper slowly builds a gentle predawn scenario into a blazing sunrise, adding layer after layer of guitar. It brings to mind a previous, epically brilliant Willson-Piper production, the lusciously jangly My Little Problem, from the 1994 Sometime Anywhere Album by his long-running, previous band the Church.

Mid-morning takes shape with another four-chord theme, ascending to an eagerly pulsing peak before the group bring it full circle, verdant and concise at the end. Then Willson-Piper completely flips the script with the pre-noon theme, his resonant David Gilmouresque electric leads and his wife’s airily soaring violin over an industrial percussion loop and an artfully rising and falling backdrop.

This particular afternoon is a simmering one, an elegant acoustic twelve-string theme anchoring rather wry backward masked and then wah-wah leads that finally give way to a lush violin break. The ensemble follow the fiery, flamenco-tinged sunset scenario with delicate dusk ambience balanced by spiky mandolin and horn-like electric guitar swells.

Before midnight is where Willson-Piper most closely evokes the Church’s densely echoey spacerock. This day doesn’t go out quietly til the very end, although the closing theme has a wistful, distantly elegaic quality,

New York’s Most Ubiquitous Cello Rockers Play a Favorite Williamsburg Haunt

The Icebergs are New York’s hardest-working cello rock band. They’re at Pete’s Candy Store just about every month – where they’ll be on Feb 25 at 8:30 – and they play a lot of random places in Bushwick as well. There’s no other band around who sound like them. Cellist Tom Abbs plays with his axe slung over his shoulder like a guitar. Mixing catchy basslines, slithery single-note riffs and boomy low-register chords, he’s sort of the Lemmy of the cello – on steroids.

Frontwoman Jane LeCroy comes out of the punk poetry scene and has been published all over the place, so her lyrics have a sharp focus that’s sometimes playful, sometimes witheringly cynical, with a fierce political undercurrent. Most of the time she sings, sometimes she speaks: either way, the drama is usually understated.

In hindsight, drummer Dave Treut was the obvious choice to fill the big shoes left behind when David Rogers-Berry left the band, and the switch turned out to be a fair trade. Treut is more chill in this band than in other projects including his own, but he still brings the psychedelic textures and ghostly flickers.

This blog was in the house for the better part of two shows at the trio’s usual Williamsburg haunt, in the spring of last year, and about a year before then as well. What was most obvious was how much more material the band have beyond what’s available on their catchy, clever 2017 debut album, Eldorado. It’s a cynical title. In case you’re wondering, there are no ELO covers on it (it’s impossible to imagine that a cello rock band would be unaware of the magnum opus by the group who paved the way). Assuming the Pete’s show starts on time, there’s still a window to get home on the L train before the nightly L-pocalypse begins.

Catchy Space-Pop From Violinist Alicia Enstrom

The instrumentals on violinist Alicia Enstrom’s lushly atmospheric new loopmusic album Monsters – streaming at youtube – are also part of a larger concerto. There are vocal numbers on the record as well: it’s just Enstrom (whose name is an anagram of “monster”), her voice, fiddle and loop pedal.

She opens the record with the slowly swaying title track, a catchy, vampy trip-hop tune with coy cartoon-monster flourishes. Half Moon starts out with spiky, echoey pizzicato, balanced by sweeping ambience: it could be Bjork at her most symphonic. Goodnight Nebraska – a shout-out to Enstrom’s home state – is the album’s most Lynchian track, a flamenco-tinged melody awash in reverb and slowly shifting tectonics.

The terse, Bach-like arpeggios in Big Idea make it the album’s most classically-influenced moment. Enstrom winds it up with Lies, a trip-hop song with more than a hint of circus rock, which comes as no surprise since Enstrom’s big gig so far has been with a famous acrobatic troupe. Fans of dark catchy pop with orchestral flourishes – think Amanda Palmer – ought to check her out.