New York Music Daily

Love's the Only Engine of Survival

Tag: chanteuse

Intriguing Vintage Sounds from Mary Lorson & the Soubrettes

Pianist/chanteuse Mary Lorson has a new album, Burn Baby Burn, with her band the Soubrettes. It’s an unassumingly charming, deceptively upbeat, pensively lyrical blend of oldtime-flavored Americana, sultry torch songs and jaunty purist pop. Lorson first rose to prominence back in the 90s as the frontwoman of Madder Rose, whose raw, moody blend of trip-hop and downtempo with rock instrumentation made them a cooler alternative to bands like Tortoise. She was a decent singer in that band, and later in Saint Low; she’s an extraordinary one now. Her voice is clear, unadorned, usually gentle and matter-of-fact, a quietly powerful vehicle for her allusively brooding songs, which reveal themselves slowly, with repeated listening: don’t go into this expecting to be able to make sense of it the first time through. On this album Lorson plays piano and guitar alongside banjoist/guitarist Leah Houghtaling and bassist Amelia Sauter, with contributions from Michael Stark on piano, Joe Novelli on lapsteel and AJ Strauss on horn on a couple of tracks.

The opening track, Busboy, sets the stage for what’s to come, Stark’s hypnotically pointillistic piano mingling with the banjo for a bell-like backdrop that mutes the grimly surreal, apocalyptic lyrics, delivered by Lorson with a deadpan coyness. That contrast between starry melody and bitter resignation recurs a little later on with Only One Number Two and its offhand Satie allusions. The album’s second track, Mancub, puts an oldtimey spin on an indie rock tune, with a blithe “bump bump badump bump” chorus over Kathy Ziegler’s swirling organ and a lyric about a guy who may not realize just how bizarre his life was on his way up. The lush, soul-infused ballad Lately wouldn’t be out of place in the Aimee Mann songbook; Houghtaling does a memorable job mimicking a violin’s pizzicato with her muted touch on the banjo.

The rustic, swirly nocturne River, with its lush blend of acoustic guitar, banjo, bass and organ downplays Lorson’s downcast vibe, while the catchy, matter-of-fact pop tune Bubble of Pretend evokes Greta Gertler in an especially theatrical moment. The hypnotic title track, its resonant lapsteel contrasting with boomy bass, creates a bucolically atmospheric milieu that reminds of Hem. By contrast, the upbeat country song Crystal Ball nicks a Jenifer Jackson lick: “Are you looking at me, I’m the only one in here,” Lorson asks enigmatically.

These Police, a ballad contrasting upper-register piano with Lorson’s finely nuanced, torchily wounded vocals, looks at the consequences of exhausting yourself to please others who probably couldn’t care less. The inscrutably seductive, pulsing, cabaret-flavored Let ‘Em Eat Little Debbie Cakes asserts that “Marie Antoinette never made that crack about the poor and their petits fours for breakfast.” The album winds up with its only cover song, I Don’t Care, brassy tune punctuated by big ghostly flurries of guitar, brass and backing vocals. This was the signature song for Eva Tanguay, proto-flapper feminist, vaudeville star and contemporary of Sophie Tucker and Mae West. But rather than channeling the lyrics’ impunity, Lorson delivers it wistfully, as if she really does care and has taken a beating for that. It’s an apt way to close this thoughtful and thought-provoking album.

Rachelle Garniez Releases Her Most Intriguing, Inscrutable Album

Sometimes the best albums take the longest to get to know. Which isn’t any surprise: if you can figure out exactly what an album is all about the first time around, maybe it isn’t worth hearing again. Rachelle Garniez has been making good and frequently transcendent ones since the late 90s. Her new one Sad Dead Alive Happy, just out this past January, is the fifth by the virtuoso accordionist/pianist/chanteuse, who’s fluent on guitar and bass as well. Over the years, she’s covered more ground more expertly, unpredictably and entertainingly than pretty much any other songwriter alive: noir blues, lushly orchestrated piano anthems, oldtime country, oompah punk, salsa, tango, psychedelia, torch songs and ragtime, to name a few genres. Her lyrics work multiple levels of meaning for a style that sounds completely spontaneous but probably isn’t: songs as intelligent as hers are typically very carefully thought out. This new album is her most opaque and inscrutable: musically, it’s an unexpected turn deep into gospel and soul music.

As usual, keyboards are front and center here, along with Garniez’ nuanced, occasionally dramatic multi-octave vocals. She pulls out all the stops on the opening track, the album’s funniest, a surreal homage (in the rough sense of the word, anyway) to Jean-Claude Van Damme, who’s apparently been hawking antidepressants on tv. It could be sincere, or it could be the album’s cruellest, most sarcastic and punkest song. Garniez’ grand guignol operatics on the outro sound more like Queen than anything else: it’s so beautifully blissful it’s hard to believe. God’s Little Acre is overtly sarcastic and even more upbeat, an unrepentant anthem for hedonists who might not want to reconnect with old conquests via Facebook. Lunasa begins echoey and hypnotic and morphs into an Irish ballad: “Tonight is the last night of the summer of love, the last night of summer, my love,” Garniez sings sweetly, but as usual, there’s an undercurrent of menace that finally emerges after a charming tack piano interlude. Nothing is exactly as it seems here.

If you’ve always wondered how Matt Munisteri would play an arena-rock guitar solo, you’ll find out on Parallel Universe, which melds 80s stadium rock into a slow gospel ballad – and surprisingly, it works. Metaphorically, it’s about rediscovering an earlier self: how that might be achieved is open to interpretation. A couple of tracks here have a previous life as well. The jaunty, clever swing tune Just Because You Can first appeared on Catherine Russell’s This Heart of Mine in 2010; Garniez’ own version is more straight-ahead. And the refusenik soul anthem My House of Peace was first released as a vinyl single by Jack White (who also plays drums on the song) on his Third Man Records label in 2009.

The album’s final track, Land of the Living brings the gospel to a crescendo both lyrically and musically: it’s an Aimee Mann drug dirge that trades that artist’s harrowing edge for a streetwise optimism. “When you fly, do you like to get a running start?” whispers Garniez as the song slowly kicks in; by the end, it’s two women hanging out, smoking on a stoop somewhere in Manhattan, one gently nudging the other toward a more robust future. You could call this gospel for nonbelievers – paradoxical as that sounds, it’s the kind of theme Garniez thrives on. Check back at the end of the year and see if this gets the nod for best album of 2012: it just might. In the meantime, it’s streaming in its entirety at myspace.

Jenifer Jackson’s New Album: An Emotional Portrait of the Here and Now

We typically associate emotional depth with sadness. Jenifer Jackson’s music has always been deep, usually with a melancholy edge, so on one level her new album The Day Happiness Found Me is quite a change. But the semantics of the title are a giveaway: she wasn’t expecting this. Against a backdrop of sometimes crushing angst and an awareness of the ever-present possibility of defeat, this enchantingly subtle singer offers guarded hope for the future. Sometimes sultry, sometimes aching, sometimes absolutely shattering, it’s a definitive record for our time.

Jackson has made a career out of pushing the envelope: merging Beatlesque psychedelia with Brazilian rhythms, blending jazz sophistication with the direct emotional impact of country music and vintage 70s soul. This latest album, her seventh full-length release, is her most intimate to date, distilled to a crystalline purity. She’s always been an extraordinarily nuanced singer, and has been through several phases, from misty chanteuse to powerful soul belter. Here, she’s never sung more directly, yet more subtly, over arrangements which are sparse but not spare, just Jackson and Chris McQueen on guitars and keys, with Chris Jones on bass (and Hem’s Jason Mercer guesting on four-string on two tracks). To say that this is a departure from the intricate psychedelia of her previous album The Outskirts of a Giant Town is an understatement.

The Missing Time opens the album on a pensive note: as is the case from here on out, Jackson’s images linger vividly. “Autumn descends” is the focal point here. It’s about missing someone, just vocals and fingerpicked guitar, with a gentle allusive Stax/Volt solo from McQueen. Groundward is classic Jenifer Jackson: an inscrutable, hypnotically imagistic rainy day tableau where “Yesterday the motion had no meaning, yesterday the seasons were careening, groundward.” Is the understated depiction of the gentle drizzle an ominous omen (especially with those dark, low-register guitar flourishes), or a sign that the sun’s about to shine?

Bring on the Night is not the Kool & the Gang song: it’s an original, casually and very cleverly building to a lushly crescendoing janglerock chorus. When Jackson’s voice swoops and then spirals low with anticipation right as it kicks in, the effect will give you goosebumps – this is a reprieve she’s talking about. What Makes Love Stay is a catchy oldschool country song: it would give instant cred to somebody like Carrie Underwood or her late 2011 equivalent (the Carrie Underwoods of the world don’t last long).

The murky boudoir ambience of Whispering Words reaches back toward the low-key psychedelic vibe Jackson mined on her last couple of albums, while the absolutely gorgeous, artsy pop of In Spring – a track that wouldn’t be out of place on a pre-Dark Side Pink Floyd record – shoots for an optimistic outcome after some disappointments: “One bad season does not make a year,” she reminds. She pulls out her best, plushest soul delivery for the soaring Game & Huff style Baby Did You Think That Love Would Find a Way, then reaches back another ten years for a 60s psychedelic pop vibe on I Remember. And The Beauty in the Emptying goes for a perfectly sparse arrangement, a reflection on letting go of the clutter – emotionally or otherwise – and looking forward to a new adventure. Of all the songs here, Maybe is the stunner, the genuine classic, awash in tense, noir atmospherics. Travel and a search for home have been major themes in Jackson’s music: this could be where she seizes victory from the jaws of defeat.

Beneath the white November moon
A tiny crescent in a deep blue
Cutting stark patterns through twisted trees
I walked a long time through fallen leaves
I tried to talk to you if only in my mind
Looking for an answer for anything that I could find
Maybe this is as much sense as life will ever make

Jenifer Jackson plays the album release show for this one on Friday, Nov 18 at Rockwood Music Hall on at 7 PM.

Amanda Thorpe’s Promenade: Stunning and Seductive

Amanda Thorpe has been a somewhat more elusive presence in the New York music scene lately, but the British expat singer/multi-instrumentalist continues to put out tremendously captivating albums. Her new one, Promenade, is a little more melodically diverse, less overtly dark than her 2008 masterpiece Union Square. As usual, the vocals are astonishing. By turns seductive, aching and charming, Thorpe can still say more in a single wounded bent note (or a raw, soul-infused wail) than most singers can communicate in an entire album. This time around, although most of the songs here are more straight-up rock, she’s followed her jazz muse into territory that most singers simply can’t reach: it’s not just a matter of chops, it’s a matter of soul, and Thorpe has both.

The attractiveness of the tunes often belies a darker undercurrent. Bar Tabac, which is essentially the title track, bleakly traces a woman’s steps from Cobble Hill to the Brooklyn Promenade, daydrunk on bloody marys, alone and miserable, while the band swings along on a jaunty bossa nova bounce lit up by Ray Sapirstein’s blithe trumpet. Monica Says, by Philip Shelley (who also serves as co-writer on the poppier numbers here), sets a portrait of a woman insisting she’ll never be happy again against crunchy Willie Nile-esque powerpop with some snarling slide guitar by Tony Scherr. Thorpe’s hypnotically gorgeous layers of vocals give the Nashville noir of Once Lovers and Bury It a creepy David Lynchian edge, while Harold Arlen’s Paper Moon gets reinvented as edgy urban country. And the jaunty closing track, Aloha Bobby and Rose, is the best song here. It’s got all the elements of a classic retro pop hit: a singalong, anthemic, country-tinged tune, and just enough imagery to keep the listener on pins and needles waiting to find out how this particular story of a drunken evening ends. When Thorpe finally cuts loose at the end, the impact is viscerally chilling.

The vocals on several numbers here are transcendent. On What Love Is (no relation to the Dead Boys classic), she’s torchy, and tender, and spine-tingling against Matt Trowbridge’s tersely echoey Fender Rhodes electric piano and Rob Jost’s slinky, soaring bass. It’s hard to resist Thorpe’s logic here: “”Try to believe in the dreams that you’re dreaming, that’s how they come true.” The country-tinged Amber pairs sultry, crystalline vocals with gentle ukulele from Craig Chesler, while Catching the Light builds from a wintry backdrop to a towering crescendo. When Thorpe asserts that “I would walk until sunrise if you needed me to,” she owns it: it’s impossible to believe otherwise. And Goodbye, with its oldtime swing sophistication, wouldn’t be out of place in the Moonlighters catalog.

And not everything here is all white-knuckle intense,either. Waking up in Brooklyn dares a guy to walk away from his daily drudgery, while Hey Hey Hey is an irresistibly cajoling, playful, indelibly New York song – Thorpe wants some fun, maybe a walk up Museum Mile and then a stop for biscuits and tea and she won’t accept no for an answer! What else is there to say about this artist that hasn’t been said already: tremendous singer, tremendous material, someone you should get to know if you haven’t already.