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A Deviously Dark New Masterpiece and a Joe’s Pub Show From Creepy Duo Charming Disaster

Charming Disaster aren’t just the creepiest guy/girl harmony duo in folk noir. They’re also a songwriting superduo. Since the late zeros, guitarist Jeff Morris has led mighty noir mambo/circus rock band Kotorino. When singer/ukulele player Ellia Bisker – leader of majestic existentialist soul band Sweet Soubrette – joined his group, that springboarded a series of collaborations that led to the duo’s debut collection of original murder ballads. Since then, they’ve become a touring powerhouse and have expanded their sound to include dark and death-obsessed narratives set to increasingly and expertly diverse musical backdrops. Their latest album Spells and Rituals is streaming at Bandcamp. They’re playing Joe’s Pub on August 22 at 9 PM; cover is $15.

They open the record with Blacksnake, a slinky clave tune about a pair of lovers who’ve gotten in too deep for their own good. All this bliss just might kill them: “Is it just hallucination or the ergot on the rye?” they ask as what may be an apocalypse looms on the horizon. There’s also a funny fourth wall-breaking reference to percussion equipment; see the band live and you’ll get it.

Although the duo do an impressive job playing multiple instruments onstage to bulk up their sound, there’s a full band on the album. Wishing Well, a Merseybeat-tinged janglerock tune has Don Godwin doing double duty on bass and drums along with the handclaps to propel its allusively suicidal narrative. Baba Yaga, a shout out to the popular witch from Russian mythology, has a scampering horror surf-tinged groove; there’s no Moussourgsky quote, although that’s the kind of thing they’d slip in when playing it live.

Devil May Care, with its wry Biblical allusions and Tex-Mex tinges, is a hoot. “You’ve got a right to get in trouble,’ is the refrain. Llithe strings add to the distant menace , alongside Jessie Kilguss’ droning harmonium. Bisker’s sultry tones enhance the sinister ambience over Morris’ gorgeously bittersweet guitar jangle in Blue Bottle Blues, a swinging number about poisoning.

Heart of Brass is a throwback to Kotorino’s adventures in sardonic steampunk storytelling, Morris and Bisker in counterpoint over tinkling glass bells and a hypnotic sway. From there they blend Beatles and classic 60s country balladry in the slightly more lighthearted, metaphorically loaded cross-country narrative Keep Moving.

Menacing circus-rock piano (that’s either Morris or Bisker; both play keys on the album) and strings (Heather Cole on violin and Patricia Santos on cello) build operatic drama in Belladonna. “The ambulance sang my name more times than once,” Morris and Bisker harmonize in Fire Eater, a broodingly orchestrated, Balkan brass-tinged parable about the perils of thrill-seeking. They stomp their way through the catchy Laurel Canyon psychedelia of the monstrously funny Be My Bride of Frankenstein and close the album with the cynical, scampering garage rock spoof Soft Apocalypse. Dark music has seldom been this much fun – and these two put on a hell of a show.

Charming Disaster Bring Their Richly Detailed, Creepy Art-Rock to Joe’s Pub

Singer and ukulele player Ellia Bisker fronts uneasy existentialist soul band Sweet Soubrette – known for their delicious retro 60s horn charts – and also leads careening careening Balkan punk street group Funkrust Brass Band. She also harmonizes menacingly with guitarist Jeff Morris in Kotorino, who mash up latin noir and phantasmagorical circus rock. Lately, Morris and Bisker have been busiest in their duo project Charming Disaster, New York’s noir supergroup. As you would expect from a crew who specialize in murder ballads, suspense pervades their uneasily tuneful, richly arranged art-rock and parlor pop narratives. Sometimes they can be playful, other times downright macabre. Their latest album, the aptly titled Cautionary Tales, is streaming at Bandcamp; they’re playing Joe’s Pub on July 20 at 8 PM. Cover is $15.

While Charming Disaster typically tour as a duo, the album features some familiar faces from the Kotorino talent base, including bassist/drummer Don Godwin (better known as the world’s funkiest tuba player, from Raya Brass Band) and a brilliant string section of violinist Marandi Hostetter and cellist Noah Hoffeld. ]

The opening track, Sympathetic Magic, rises out of a stately web of guitar, uke and clever vocal counterpoint, a carefully detailed S&M scenario between two unlikely participants. No spoilers here.

Snake Bit is a concert favorite and one of their loudest songs, a snarling garage-psych anthem with a little latin and late Beatles flavor. Some of Charming Disaster’s charm is how Morris and Bisker trade off playing the villlain and victim roles, and this is a prime example.

With its blend of spiky Britfolk and prime 70s Bowie glam, Selene & Endymion is just as guitarishly ferocious, proof that dating a goddess isn’t all it’s made out to be. “When you’re asleep, sleep with one eye open,” the two harmonize at the end. They go back to mythology a little later on and further north with the grisly, apocalyptic Ragnarok. part Byrds, part Cheap Trick at their punkest.

Phosphorescent Lilies is a primo Bisker soul number, a swaying, allusive, blackly funny tale of medieval sacrifice. The Dylanesque folk-rock waltz Little Black Bird follows a surrealistic Brothers Grimm-style tangent. Days Are Numbered, an irresistibly funny mashup of Black Sabbath and lush chamber pop, is a spy story, at least on the surface, an apt tale for a surveillance state in the age of big data.

With its waltzing horror-movie music-box piano and danse macabre strings, Infernal Soiree is the closest thing to Orphan Jane grand guignol here. Awash in distant reverb, the starkly elegaic What Remains is the album’s best track, the shadow image of the frantic couple cleaning up the evidence in an earlier Charming Disaster gem, Deep in the High, from the duo’s debut album Love, Crime & Other Trouble. The final cut here is the grimly metaphorical, ineluctably waltzing String Break Song, Is this 2017’s best album? it’s one of them.

Good news on the Kotorino front, too – they’ve got a new album pretty much in the can, and an expected 2018 release date.

A Killer Murder Ballad Monday Coming Up in Brooklyn

What’s the likelihood of seeing two bands as brilliantly creepy as Bobtown and Charming Disaster on the same bill? And one of New York’s great lead guitarists, and one of the most distinctive banjo players on the planet, and a rising star in the cello-rock demimonde? It happened at the second installment of the new, monthly Murder Ballad Mondays series at Branded Saloon. It’s a salon held in a saloon – rather than an open mic, it’s a place for eclectic artists to prowl around in the darkest corners of the human psyche, pay homage to psychopathic urges in song from across the centuries, and work up new material in that hallowed tradition.

Charming Disaster – guitarist Jeff Morris from the estimable, phantasmagorical  latin noir/art-rock band Kotorino and Ellia Bisker from the similarly-inclined Sweet Soubrette and Funkrust Brass Band – run the show here, and treated the crowd to an all-too-brief, barely half-hour set of menacingly harmony-driven songs that veered from chamber pop to noir cabaret to circus rock. It was the one point in a deviously fun night of music where the songs deviated from the topic of killing to simply chronicling the intricacies of all sorts of troubled relationships, some mythical, some set in the here and now. Morris played with just a touch of distortion on his old hollowbody Gibson as Bisker wound through graceful lead lines on her electric ukulele.

Bobtown – one of the best loved and most menacing bands in folk noir – opened the show, percussionist/keyboardist Katherine Etzel, singer Jen McDearman, guitarist Karen Dahlstrom, bassist Fred Stesney and lead guitarist/banjo player Alan Lee Backer treating the crowd to some unexpected but typically ominous new material, the sparkling harmonies of the women in the band flying overhead. Backer then took a detour into his own vintage-style Americana and C&W, followed by folk singers Sarah Durning and then Karen Poliski parsing the classics with some murderous numbers from the repertoire of Gillian Welch and others.

The  most original of all the covers was a mind-warping take of Helter Skelter, played solo on banjo by Andrew Vladeck of jangly, Americana-inflected anthem band Fireships. Badass, eclectic cello-rock firestarter Patricia Santos (also of Kotorino) went deep into rustic blues/gospel mode with a new one of her own as well as another Gillian Welch tune. Comic relief was provided by Erica Smith‘s bass player taking a rare turn on piano. He’d written a song on the way to the show – a politically-inspired ghoulabilly tune – but couldn’t read the lyrics he’d scribbled moments before on the D train. Backer’s penlight came to the rescue.

This coming Monday’s installment, starting at 8 PM, features an even more auspicious lineup: powerful, soul-infused dark acoustic songwriter Jessi Robertson; brilliant Americana/janglerock tunesmith and harmonium player Jessie Kilguss; the similarly intense, historically-fixated Robin Aigner; songwriter Arthur Schupbach’s John Prine-inspired Donald & Lydia duo project; parlor pop songwriter Juliet Strong and more.

And Charming Disaster have a gig on Saturday night, November 14 at 8 at the Slipper Room; cover is $15.

 

Charming Disaster Take Their Wickedly Literate Narratives and Murder Ballads on the Road

Charming Disaster are a New York mini-supergroup, a collaboration between Jeff Morris, frontman of majestically slinky circus rock/latin/art-rock band Kotorino, and Ellis Bisker, who leads existenialist chamber pop/soul band Sweet Soubrette. Their debut album, which came out earlier this year and is up at bandcamp, is a mix of murder ballads and crime narratives. Since then, they’ve expanded their worldview to include songs about just about any kind of troubled relationship. They like duets, and swing, and Romany sounds, and mythology. They’re currently hitting the road (tourdates are here), and when they get back they’re hosting a night of murder ballads at Branded Saloon in Ft. Greene on October 19 at 8 PM.

Their show at the end of last month at Pete’s Candy Store – which also went out over the interwebs via Concert Window – was deliciously creepy, but there was also a lot of new material, a series of character studies and retelings of old myths from around the world which were just as erudite and bewitchingly lyrical as their earlier stuff. Bisker played electric ukulele and kept time on a hi-hat while Morris played guitar and a stompbox of sorts. The uke and guitar mingled so seamlessly that it was as if they were a single ringing, rippling entiity. Morris took the deadpan rake role in contrast to Bisker’s torchiliy menacing allure.

They opened with Ghost Story, a catchy backbeat-driven tale of love or something like it, beyond the grave. The darkly jaunty, Weimar-inflected Showgirl, Morris explained, was inspired by his great-aunt, a real showgirl back in the Roaring 20s who dated a mobster…and also went out with a cop. The most gorgeously jangly number of the night was Ragnarok, a sardonic Laurel Canyon psychedelic folk anthem exploring grisly Nordic apocalyptic imagery; it brought to mind Pierre de Gaillande‘s late, lamented art-rock band the Snow.

The duo joined voices for a grim, Appalachian-tinged waltz about starvation in the wilderness, then made uneasily pouncing garage-psych rock out of the Egyptian Osiris myth. They cast Persephone not as an ingenue longing to be rescued but someone who’d embraced her fate as a permanent citizen of Hades, bringing to mind another great, now disbanded New York group, the Disclaimers.

A ukulele swing version of Led Zep’s Immigrant Song was just plain hilarious; after that, the duo went back to bittersweetly jangly with Artichoke, Bisker contributing a droll kazoo solo over Morris’ frenetic guitar clang. They wound up the set with a funny circus rock duet in the same vein as what Shane MacGowan and Kirsty MacColl did with A Fairytale of New York. Audiences up and down the Eastern Seaboard are up for a real treat this month.

A Killer Debut Album and a Show Uptown by Charming Disaster

Guitarist/pianist Jeff Morris is the mastermind behind mighty, darkly harmony-fueled art-rock/circus rock/noir cabaret/salsa swing band Kotorino. Ellia Bisker plays ukulele and fronts catchy, lyrically driven indie pop band Sweet Soubrette. Together they are Charming Disaster, whose new album of murder ballads, Love, Crime & Other Trouble – streaming at Bandcamp – is one of the most twistedly delicious noir albums of recent years. They seem to have had so much fun making it that they ended up bringing in most of Kotorino in the process. Charming Disaster’s next show is on Jan 27 at 8 PM at Silvana on 116th St., down the hill from Morningside Heights, about a block from the C train.

Two things immediately distinguish Charming Disaster from the many other would-be hitmen with murder ballads. Where so many of those songs come out of the folk and country traditions, Charming Disaster’s are more urban, and urbane. A closer listen reveals little Raymond Chandler-esque vignettes with all kinds of unexpected narrative twists and ghoulish humor that manages not to be campy. Bisker’s ability to change her voice to suit the song, whether with a petulant hint of New Jersey or a brassy oldtime swing delivery, informs how she channels the various dangerous dames here.

The opening track, Ghost Story, begins with a gorgeous interweave of guitar and uke and rises toward Spectorish proportions as Bisker unveils a tale about a woman who’s haunted by not one but two ghosts, and how everybody got to where they are, dead or alive. Ocean City comes across as a more skittish, shuffling take on what Springsteen captured in another low-budget coastal town, pushed along by Mike Brown’s bass and Jerome Morris’ drums.

With its tinkling saloon piano, the Weimar blues-tinged Showgirl is a duet, a wickedly sardonic tale that reminds that corruption in the NYPD goes way, way back. Wolf Song recasts 80s goth rock as a delicate acoustic nocturne with a big brass-fueled crescendo from trombonist Cecil Scheib and trumpeter Jesse Selengut. Artichoke blends ghoulabilly with Romany jazz and noir cabaret in a Tom Waits vein. One of the best tracks here, Secretary, paints a ghoulish picture of a real femme fatale over an eerie staccato guitar bounce a la Iggy’s The Passenger: this girl always smells like smoke even though she’s never been known to step out of the office for one.

Morris and Bisker intertwine voices on Grifters, a cynical Depression-era con artists’ tale set to another ominously swinging, Waits-flavored shuffle. They pick up the pace with the roaring, punk-flavored, grisly Osiris, an aptly shapeshfitting number and the album’s most straightforward track. They keep the energy at knife’s edge with Deep in the High, a cruelly carnivalesque number about a couple unraveling fast.

The most suspenseful track here is Knife Thrower, a lushly menacing look at the symbiotic relationship between a carnival couple with some gorgeously deep-sky steel guitar from Morris. The album winds up with the uneasy I Know You Know, a bittersweet love song with a dark undercurrent. If you aren’t hooked on this by now, there’s no hope for you. You should also grab the band’s 2013 debut single, Murderer b/w East River Ferry Waltz, a free download also up at their Bandcamp page.