New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: chamber pop

Deep Space Glimmer From Alicia Enstrom

Art-rock violinist Alicia Enstrom has a background in circus music. But on her most recent album Monsters (an anagram of her last name), she tackles immersive spacerock and chamber pop. Her lates single is Bardo Tide, a swirly, deep-space instrumental, which could be a backing track to a Julee Cruise hit from a David Lynch soundtrack. Kill the lights and enjoy.

Office Culture’s Cynical Frontman Gets Slightly More Organic

Winston Cook-Wilson a.k.a. Winston C.W. is the deadpan lounge lizard frontman and keyboardist of hilariously slick 80s pop parody band Office Culture – whose debut record you’ll see on the best albums of the year page here at the end of this month. He has a new album, Good Guess, out under his own name, streaming at Bandcamp. The music is a lot more stripped-down and less cynically plasticky than his main project, and maybe a little less insincere. Ward White at his most sardonic is a good point of comparison.

The album’s first track is Cakewalk, a slow, swaying, chiming, Debussy-esque piano pop ballad – with a characteristically cruel punchline. Guitarist Ryan Beckley does a good job emulating a horn with his volume knob as bassist Carmen Rothwell keeps a steady pulse.

Business is much the same, a stroll “past the trappings of defeat.”  As you might guess, the third track, Safety, is not about being safe at all, with its allusions to betrayal. The joke in Broken Drum is more musical rather than lyrical, the band gettting murky and rubato with some familiar “classic rock” riffs. “Maybe I look like someone who thrives for a minute in this brutal season, someone who forgets what it’s like to be that other guy,” Cook-Wilson muses innocently.

The sarcastically titled instrumental Swing Time is a slightly Lynchian stab at free jazz. The narrator of the increasingly creepy kiss-off ballad No Regrets is no less blithely callous than the characters in Cook-Wilson’s main band’s songs.

The album’s best story is Birds, an allusively grim narrative set to a cliched, saccharine 80s easy-listening pop backdrop. The abrasively trippy title track brings the record full circle, “a joyous day for a sad affair,” as Cook-Wilson puts it. For anyone who’s ever suffered through a retail dayjob where Lite FM plays on loop, this is sweet redemption.

Wild, Outside-the-Box Orchestral Reinventions of Steely Dan Favorites

Guitarist Andrew Green can shred with anyone, but he’s also a first-rate, imaginative composer and arranger. About ten years ago, he put out a deliciously shadowy album of original film noir-inspired pieces titled Narrow Margin. His latest record, Dime Dancing – streaming at Bandcamp – is an orchestral take on the Steely Dan catalog, both the hits and some deeper cuts. The charts are as playful and clever as the originals, and frontwoman Miriam Waks brings Donald Fagen’s allusively sinister, druggy lyrics into crystalline focus. Suddenly these songs make a lot of sense! What a treat for fans of the Dan.

They open with the radio staple Black Cow. This balmy neoclassical version picks up with the counterpoint between the oboe’s single-note lines – that’s either Dan Wieloszynski or Kenny Berger –  and the strings of violinist Meg Okura and cellist Jody Redhage. Frontwoman Miriam Waks sings it with a coy cynicism, then Green makes bluegrass out of it with some unexpectedly purist flatpicking.

Curto and Waks give Aja a hazy, languid atmosphere with rhythmic echoes of Steve Reich; is that percussionist Vince Cherico on tabla? And who knew that Any World That I’m Welcome To was such a wish song? Waks brings new depth to Fagen’s alienated hippie protagonist over jaunty, string-whipped salsa-rock, with a wry Spanish-language descarga at the end.

Green and Waks reinvent Reelin’ in the Years at what feels like quarterspeed, with enigmatic harmonies and a strikingly wounded vocal. Drummer Richie Barshay’s opening groove in Dirty Work is LMAO funny and too good to spoil – then the ensemble do the song as surprisingly straight-up, bubbly chamber pop with a spiraling, forro-inspired solo by accordionist Rob Curto..

They ease into Daddy Don’t Live in That New York City No More, reinventing it as a stark, disquieting, baroque-tinged acoustic waltz: Waks leaves no doubt about what happened to Daddy. The most obscure and least memorable track here, Everything You Did gets a strutting vaudevillian arrangement with muted trumpet. Green and crew wind up the record with a balmy, bittersweet, slowly enveloping take of Rikki Don’t Lose That Number. Unquestionably one of the most entertaining albums of the year.

An Eclectic, Colorful Single From Darkly Literary Rockers Lusterlit

Lit-rock superduo Lusterlit – guitarist Charlie Nieland and percussionist/keyboardist Susan Hwang – have a vinyl single, Meat Cake, that’s been kicking around here. Time to wipe off the dust and give it a spin, at Bandcamp if you want.

The band take the title from the well-known series by graphic novelist and artist Dame Darcy. One side of the record is Wax Wolf, which sounds like a shuffling, acoustic version of X, with a neat web of voices early on. This guy “gives new meaning to ‘one track mind.’”

Hwang sings the flip side, Cutting, a diptych that shifts from a slinky, hip-hop-influenced groove to glimmering, noirish art-rock, with a message of empowerment referencing feminists from Cleopatra to Frances Farmer.

A Prophetic, Elegaic Single From Simone White

Why did we wait
All the signs were there
We simply did not care

Simone White recorded her single Letter to the Last Generation, a lush piano-and-omnichord-driven waltz, before the lockdown. It seems to be a global warming cautionary tale, but it fits the darkest side of this era’s zeitgeist, the propagandized and terrorized marching in their muzzles into the jaws of a holocaust.

Intriguing, Allusively Lyrical Violin Songs From Concetta Abbate

Violinist Concetta Abbate writes imaginatively detailed, concise chamber rock songs – when she’s not playing string quartets, or ambient music. She draws on a classical background as well as an immersion in the New York free improvisation scene. Some of the songs on her new album Mirror Touch – streaming at Bandcamp – bring to mind a higher-register Rasputina, or in more delicate moments, cello rocker Serena Jost or the Real Vocal String Quartet. Much of this material is through-composed: Abbate doesn’t typically repeat herself or stay in one place for very long. She also uses pizzicato as much as she bows: this music has plenty of bounce and groove.

The album title refers to mirror-touch synesthesia, where an individual physically feels a physical reaction when another person is touched (many consider it extrasensory perception). The first song, Creatures, is a diptych, its elegantly vamping, swaying baroque pop shifting to a triumphant, emphatic conclusion. Abbate’s search for solid ground amid the relentless uncertainty of gentification-era New York becomes a rare success story.

She leaps to the top of her expressive high soprano in the precise cadences of the Renaissance-flavored miniature Madrigal. Then she matches a gentle but resolute vocal to more baroque-tinged, acerbically leaping violin riffage in Lavender, drummer Ben Engel artfully handling the subtle rhythmic shifts.

The jaunty latin jazz pulse of September, spiced with Charlie Rauh’s guitar and Abbate’s resonant lines on the low strings of her five-string model contrasts with the song’s troubled lyrics. Sunlight, an instrumental with wordless vocals, slowly coalesces toward Bach out of carefree, leaping phrases; then the energy picks up again.

Building has delicate pizzicato that shifts into ambience and one of Abbate’s most acerbically loaded lyrics:

Notebooks upon notebooks
Cost more than I make
Face upon illusion
Give and take
Will they discover me
Will I be found out

Hazy harmonics from both violin and Vasko Dukovski’s bass clarinet provide a surreal backdrop for the warmly inviting vocals of Overflow. The album’s funniest, most playful number is Mis, an instrumental duet between Dukovski and flutist Leanne Friedman.

Abbate returns to a more broodingly poetic atmosphere with Bit of Rain, which has hints of both trip-hop and 20th century minimalism. She follows that with the album’s most hypnotically circling number, Secrets

Worlds, a solo instrumental for violin and vocals, follows a disquieted path through riffage that evokes Ligeti, Bartok, and also Celtic music. Abbate concludes with the benedictory diptych Forgetful, an apt way to close this fresh, verdant, allusively intriguing album.

Lavish, Imaginatively Arranged, Individualistic Ballads From Le Mirifique Orchestra

Le Mirifique Orchestra play lush, vast, majestically arranged ballads from the worlds of jazz standards, classic chanson and pop music. The arrangements on their new album Oh! My Love – streaming at Bandcamp – draw on classical styles from the baroque to the 21st century, emphasis on the modern. It’s an absolutely unique, imaginative sound, with jazz solos, classical lustre and catchy, relatively short songs. The group like playful instrumental intros, and have six strong singers taking turns out front.

The orchestra open the record with calmly spacious minimalism and then make their way into the first song, Skylark, sung with soaring, vintage soul-infused hopefulness by Agathe Peyrat. With orchestration that spans the sonic spectrum, from Thomas Saulet’s flute and Nicolas Fargeix’s clarinet down to Jérémie Dufort’s tuba, the song sets the stage for the rest of the record.

Co-leader Alban Darche’s judicious sax flurries over Alexis Thérain’s bittersweet guitar chords introduce Don’t Explain, then back away for Alice Lewis’ similarly pensive vocals. The swirl of the reeds against the resonance of trumpeter Rodolph Puechbroussous and horn players Pierre-Yves Le Masne and Emmanuel Bénèche maintain an uneasy dichotomy over drummer Meivelyan Jacquot’s muted sway.

Chloé Cailleton moves to the mic for the wistful You Can Never Hold Back Spring, the orchestra shifting between terse lustre and bubbling optimism. After a coyly shapeshifting intro, crooner Loïs Le Van takes over the lead on Parce que je t’aime, the ensemble moving from a subtle fugue to bright pageantry and back.

After a suspensefully flurrying guitar-and-drums interlude, the strings of Le Quatuor Psophos add lushness to the moody, often rather troubled instrumental Answer Me. Darche opens Je crois entendre with a balmy solo, then Philippe Katerine offers a gentle vocal over a contrastingly brooding, tense backdrop.

The string quartet return for My Love, foreshadowing the album’s title track with disquieting close harmonies and dynamic shifts. Cailleton takes over vocals again in a hazily brassy take of I’ll Be Seeing You, the high reeds rising to a balletesque peak.

Lewis goes back to the mic with a moody understatement for the haunting Celian’s Complaint, guest trumpeter Geoffroy Tamisier winding it up with a desolate solo: it’s the high point of the album. The similarly somber, mysterious narrative Et pour autant qu’il m’en souvienne makes a good segue, Le Van’s sober spoken word set to spare, possibly improvised verses before the angst-fueled chorus kicks in. Thomas de Pourquery sings the title cut to close the album on a pensively pillowy note.

Sharp and Hilarious New Protest Songs From Dawn Oberg

Nobody writes funnier, more acerbic protest songs these days than pianist and singer Dawn Oberg. The San Francisco songwriter’s previous political piano pop album Nothing Rhymes with Orange made the best albums of the year list in 2017. Lockdown or no lockdown, she was determined to get a new short album of relevantly entertaining songs out this year too. Her excoriating, irresistibly sardonic latest release, 2020 Revision is streaming at Bandcamp. As usual, the band behind her – Kelyn Crapp and Roger Rocha on guitars, Shawn Miller on bass and Andrew Laubacher on drums – are tight and inspired behind the velvet vocals.

Oberg loves puns and multiple entendres (in her world, doubles are for lightweights), and uses a lot of gospel voicings at the piano. “Those who hunger for justice are now starving at the station door,” she intones on the album’s first song, It’s 12:01, a fiery, insistent call for justice for the chilling list of innocent people murdered by the SFPD. The album includes a second, “clean” radio edit of the song so the censors don’t get their underwear all up in a knot over the word “motherfuckers.”

In the more woundedly subdued, gospel-tinged second track, Care, Oberg ponders what kind of “psychic surgeon practicing somewhere” could possibly give Donald Trump a conscience. In a year where the lockdowners are building concentration camps on American soil, this song has special resonance.

With Erik Ian Walker on the organ, the funniest, bounciest number here is Mitch McConnell. “I wouldn’t cross the street to pee on him if he were onfire,” Oberg insists. She takes issue with people who compare the Republican paleofascist to turtles, since that would be an insult to any reptile. We’ve never needed artists like Dawn Oberg more than we do now – which is why the lockdowners are doing everything in their power to keep audiences away from any kind of music. That’s an issue which Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Ayatollah Khomeini and the Taliban all agreed on.

Cello Rockers the Icebergs Take Their Dark, Distinctive Sound to the Next Level

It’s always validating to see a good band grow into a great one. Over the last few years, the Icebergs have distinguished themselves from the other acts in the cello-rock demimonde by way of Tom Abbs’ deep well of sounds, beyond that instrument’s usual sonic range, along with frontwoman/lyricist Jane LeCroy’s black humor and often searing metaphors.  O’Death drummer David Rogers-Berry completes the picture with his nimble, counterintuitive, coloristic style. On their new album Add Vice – streaming at Bandcamp – they take their dark, aphoristic, individualistic style to the next level: it’s one of the best records of the year. 

It opens with Fallen Creature, an escape anthem of sorts and the catchiest song the band have ever done. Abbs runs a Brubeck-esque riff over Rogers-Berry’s’s lithely tumbling drums, LeCroy contributing a typically telling lyric: “I am a fallen creature who knows my away around the grounds,,,I know silken threads, the stickiness of woven webs.”

The second track, Chelsea – a brief party scenario –  is a witchy one-chord jam as Lorraine Leckie might do it, with snarling guitar and organ, Abbs playing basslines behind guest Martin Philadelphy’s reverb guitar. Invictus keeps the menacing 60s ambience going; this could be Rasputina covering X. “Your days are numbered, so make them count,” LeCroy advises amidst the swirl.

Willa is a slow, death-obsessed ballad, Abbs’ stark upper-register lines subtly iced with reverb. The menace continues with the defiant, starkly bluesy Made It Rain  a trip-hop take on vintage Nina Simone.

The slinky Full Fathom 5 Ariel’s Song – a Shakespeare setting – has  ghostly call-and-response over funeral organ and the cello’s layers of distorted guitar voicings. They pick up the pace with the sarcastically blithe faux cha-cha Same Symptoms, then return to sinister mode with The Way They Wanted, a chillingly imagistic anti-conformist broadside. “The closer to truth, the bigger the joke,” LeCroy warns.

Motorcycle could be a brooding RZA Wu-Tang backing track as produced by Lee “Scratch” Perry. Bow Spirit is a brisk minor-key shuffle with similar dubwise tinges. The band follow that with Ocean Liner, a gleefully Halloweenish garage rock number (and an obvious choice for a band named the Icebergs).

Pareidolia has a slow, staggered sway behind LeCroy’s accusatory vocals. “What are you using to rip out your eyes so you don’t have to look?” she asks over a staggered, skeletal groove and Abbs’ pickslide slashes in the album’s title track – what an apt song for the year of the plandemic and the lockdown!

The tightly waltzing Little Lamb could be a parody of helicopter parenting, or about something even more troubling. The band wind up this hauntingly expansive album with A Line, LeCroy’s wry litany of metaphors reflecting her long background in the poetry underground. “Get out of line – a line is to cross,” she reminds. Powerful words for a year that may determine the fate of the earth. 

Lush, Elegant, Moodily Orchestrated Chamber Pop from Chanteuse Z Berg

Press releases usually can’t be trusted, especially when it comes to music. The one that came with the new album Get Z to a Nunnery, by a singer who goes by the name of Z Berg characterized the record as “a little bit Francoise Hardy…a little bit Dusty Springfield on drugs..” Intriguing, no? It’s streaming at Bandcamp – see for yourself.

While Berg’s lavishly orchestrated songs are totally retro 60s, her voice is very much in the here and now. There’s a big crack in it when she reaches for a crescendo, Amy Winehouse-style. In quieter moments, her mutedly husky musings bring to mind Americana chanteuses like Tift Merritt. And either the album cost a fortune to produce, or Berg has lots of conservatory-trained friends (or dad still has something left from the old days at the formerly big record label). Sweeping orchestration and classically-tinged piano pervade her moody narratives, full of artful chord changes, dynamic shifts and picturesque imagery. It’s more valium and vodka than Prozac.

The opening ballad, To Forget You sets the stage, floating along over lush strings and a gracefully swaying 6/8 rhythm. The theme of I Fall For the Same Face Every Time is that troubled birds of a feather flock together, set to elegantly arpeggiated piano and baroque harp cascades.

“We didn’t fear the things we did not know,” Berg asserts in another 6/8 number, Time Flies, a pretty generic pop song heavily camouflaged in layers of backward-masked guitar and symphonic gloss. She shifts to a straight-up waltz tempo for Into the Night, a more delicate number that could be Charming Disaster on opium.

A gentle foreboding pervades Calm Before the Storm, the gently fingerpicked guitar, 70s Nashville pop melody and Berg’s plainspoken lyrics bringing to mind Jenifer Jackson in Americana mode. Little Colonel is one of the more skeletal and haunting tracks here, rising to a low-key baroque pop arrangement:

Dear little colonel, one foot in the grave
Fighting the war with an unsteady aim
Is that the goal, to create a crusade
With nothing for no one, so no one is saved
Or safe

It was recorded before the lockdown, but it’s uncanny all the same.

Berg and I (that’s the title) is a doomed noir cabaret number gliding along with mutedly insistent piano, strings and backward masking. Charades, a duet, is more sardonic and ELO-ish, the piano receding behind fingerpicked guitar. “It was a scream when were young and dumb, acid on Topanga Beach, in my mind we’ll always be that free,” Berg recalls in The Bad List, an anguished holiday nightmare breakup scenario: it’s the album’s Fairytale of New York. There’s also a starry instrumental epilogue. This is a sleeper candidate for the shortlist of the best albums of 2020.