New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Tag: chamber pop

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.

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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!

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.