New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Tag: classical rock

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.

Advertisements

An Epic East Village Show by Haunting Turkish Rock Singer Mehmet Erdem

Friday night at Drom, intense crooner Mehmet Erdem led his four-piece band through an epic, towering, majestic set of elegant, darkly crescendoing Turkish art-rock. Wearing a wireless headset, he and the sound guy had an animated dialogue going during the first few numbers of a concert that went on for well over two hours into Saturday morning. Which makes sense – although Erdem is a talented multi-instrumentalist who plays several Turkish lutes, his first gig as a professional was not as a musician but as a sound engineer. After a few tweaks, he was content: Drom is one of New York’s most sonically pristine venues.

That calm, meticulous approach extended to his vocals as well. In a powerful, resonant baritone, he stood resolute and mostly motionless in the center of the stage, intoning a long series of brooding, slowly crescendoing ballads in his native vernacular. You could call him the Turkish Leonard Cohen – although Erdem has a lot more range beyond Cohen’s foggy low register.

As is often the case with Turkish rock, Erdem’s lyrics are enigmatic and allusive, with the occasional mythological reference. What appear to be brooding lost-love laments on the surface may have political overtones, thinly veiled nostalgia for freedom and basic human rights. As the night wore on, the crowd sang along: even for non-Turkish speakers, it was easy to get a sense of meaning from Erdem’s articulation and forcefulness, and from the audience as well. The ladies sang along lustily on the night’s most carefree ballad; other times, phones were raised defiantly. Let’s hope some of this footage makes it to youtube.

The band were fantastic. Interestingly, for all his fretboard talent, Erdem only played oud, and only on a handful of songs midway through the show. And he never cut loose, negotiating a couple of serpentine intros with a brooding terseness, choosing his spots and slowly building suspense. His acoustic guitarist added incisive melody that occasionally shifted toward flamenco or the Middle East, especially when the music’s minor modes grew darkest (Turkish rock can be gothic AF, an effect that really kicked in when he switched to keyboards on the night’s most majestic numbers). Meanwhile, the rhythm section lurked in the background, occasionally rising when the tempos picked up.

But the star of the show was the clarinetist. In the Balkans and eastward, clarinet is often the lead instrument, and this band’s lead guy is killer. Opening with a dazzling, microtonal flourish was a red herring, considering that he matched the bandleader’s moody resonance most of the way through. As the set picked up steam, he opened a couple of numbers with all-too-brief taqsims, parsing every haunting tonality he could get out of his reed.

By about one in the morning, Erdem had methodically worked up to a peak, through grooves that a couple of times snuck their way from cumbia to straight-up stadium rock, with a couple of lively detours into funk and even roots reggae. From there, the group hit the hardest, with a series of singalong anthems. They brought it down somewhat at the end, closing on a somewhat disquieting, unresolved note. At that point, there was no need for an encore.

Drom is one of only a handful of clubs in the US, and the only one in New York which regularly features Turkish rock. Extraordinary chanteuse Sertab Erener – whose music is somewhat quieter but just as lavish – is there on May 25 at 7 PM.

A Rapturous, Hauntingly Spare Solo Album From Enigmatic Cello Rock Songstress Serena Jost

The sheer hummability of cellist/multi-instrumentalist Serena Jost’s music contrasts with the opaqueness of her lyrics. In her music, nothing is ever as it seems despite all indications to the contrary. That enigmatic sensibility has served her well over the past fifteen years. The closest comparison is ELO’s Jeff Lynne, a similarly brilliant tunesmith whose signature sound blends classical ideas with rock, and has a similarly distinctively, elegant production style as well. Jost’s newest album, Up to the Sky – streaming at her music page – is her most ambitious to date. It’s a solo recording, just cello and vocals, recorded in the rich, reverberating sonics of St. Peter’s Church at 346 W 20th St. in Chelsea, where she’s playing the album release show on April 19 at 7:30 PM. Cover is $10; a reception will follow.

Window opens the album. Jost’s stark, ambered low chords, circling in a Philip Glass vein, anchor her clear, pensive vocals. A recurring shooting star reference adds to the nocturnal rapture and unease.

The influence of Jost’s frequent collaborator Amanda Thorpe shines through plaintively in The Cut, a canteringly hypnotic, Britfolk-tinged, plaintively imagistic lament. Likewise, the wave motion of Clement – just vocalese and cello – sets the stage for Great Conclusions. Playing this with her band, Jost cuts loose with a galloping, crescendoing intensity, but in this version, her pizzicato attack is muted, her vocals understated and clear, echoing Linda Thompson as the song’s gloomily allusive narrative winds out.

Hallway. another instrumental with vocalese, brings in a hazy late-afternoon sun, introducing the baroque-flavored vignette Happiness. “Happiness has come and gone without warning, just a lantern in the night.” Jost intones.

Lullaby is a melody much of the world knows from childhood; the cello adds a newly somber undercurrent. By contrast, It’s a Delight rises to an unexpectedly triumphant crescendo over the sparest, circling low-register riff. Jost works that dichotomy again in Silver Star, its images of escape and release over subtle variations on a mantra-like cello phrase. The album concludes, unresolved, with the fragmentary, echoing, mysterious Red Door. Fans of darkly individualistic songwriters from Carol Lipnik to Connie Converse will devour this. Indie classical people ought to check this out as well – for what it’s worth, Jost once arranged and led a fifty-cello performance of Terry Riley’s In C!

A String-Driven Treat and a Park Slope Gig by Irrepressible, Fearlessly Eclectic Violinist Tom Swafford

Violinist Tom Swafford’s String Power were one of the most lavishly entertaining, surrealistically psychedelic bands to emerge in New York in this decade. Blending classical focus, swirling mass improvisation, latin and Middle Eastern grooves and jazz flair, they played both originals as well as playful new arrangements of songs from across the years and around the world. With a semi-rotating cast of characters, this large ensemble usually included all of the brilliant Trio Tritticali – violinist Helen Yee, violist Leann Darling and cellist Loren Dempster – another of this city’s most energetically original string bands of recent years. Swafford put out one fantastic album, streaming at Bandcamp, with the full band in 2015 and has kept going full steam since with his own material, notably his Songs from the Inn, inspired by his time playing in Yellowstone State Park. 

Over the last couple of years, String Power have been more or less dormant, although Swafford has a characteristically eclectic show of his own coming up on Feb 2 at 7 PM the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music, where he’s a faculty member. To start the show, he’ll be playing Ravel’s Sonata for Violin and Piano with pianist Emile Blondel. After that, he’ll be leading a trio with guitarist/banjoist Benjamin “Baby Copperhead” Lee and bassist Zach Swanson for a set of oldtime country blues and then some bluesy originals of his own. Cover is $15/$10 stud/srs.

The String Power album has a formidable lineup of adventurous New York classical and indie classical talent. On violins, alongside Swafford and Yee, there’s a slightly shifting cast of Mark Chung, Patti Kilroy, Frederika Krier, Suzanne Davenport and Tonya Benham; Darling and Joanna Mattrey play viola; Dempster and Brian Sanders play cello, with Dan Loomis on bass. The album opens with Tango Izquierda, Swafford’s shout-out to the Democrats regaining control of Congress in the 2006 midterm elections. Maybe we’ll get lucky again, right? This elegantly lilting number rises and falls with intricate counterpoint and a handful of frenetic Mik Kaminski-ish cadenzas.

The group reinvents new wave band the Stranglers’ synth-pop Dave Brubeck ripoff Golden Brown – an ode to the joys of heroin – with a stately neo-baroque arrangement. The Velvets’ Venus in Furs is every bit as menacing, maybe more so than the original, with a big tip of the hat to John Cale, and a Swafford solo that’s just this side of savage.

Swafford’s version of Wildwood Flower draws more on its origins in 19th century shape-note singing than the song’s eventual transformation into a bluegrass standard, with a folksy bounce fueled by spiky  massed pizzicato. Darling’s arrangement of the Mohammed Abdel Wahab classic Azizah opens with her plaintive taqsim (improvisation) over a drone, pounces along with all sorts of delicious microtones up to a whiplash coda and an outro that’s way too funny to give away.

Likewise, the otherwise cloying theme from the gently satirical 70s soap opera parody Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman gets a trick ending. Charles Mingus’ anti-segregation jazz epic Fables of Faubus gets a fullscale nine-minute workout, heavy on the composer’s relentless sarcasm. In the age of Trump, this really hits the spot with its phony martial heroics and sardonially swiping swells, Chung, Krier, Swafford and finally Loomis getting a chance to chew the scenery.

The album winds up with Swafford’s own Violin Concerto. The triptych opens with Brutal Fanfare, a stark, dynamically rising and falling string metal stomp spiced with twisted Asian motive – it makes a good segue out of Mingus. The second part, High Lonesome explores the often fearsome blues roots of bluegrass, with some wickedly spiraling Swafford violin. The conclusion, simply titled Ballad, is the most atmospheric passage here: it sounds like an Anna Thorvaldsdottir vista raised an octave or two. 

An Epic, Nebulously Haunting Oceanic Art-Rock Suite Winds Up This Year’s Prototype Festival

The annual Prototype Festival began as a forum for avant garde opera but has grown to encompass lavish choral suites, dystopic Balkanic epics and noir cabaret. Last night at Here’s black-box theatre in SoHo, the performance was a dark, similarly eclectic rock show with projections for a backdrop.

Violinist Carla Kihlstedt’s career spans from classical, new music and the far expanses of jazz to the brooding rock of her Rabbit Rabbit Radio ensemble. This time out she led her seven-piece group – her husband Matthias Bossi on drums; Jeremy Flower and Michael Abraham on guitars (the former doubling on keys); Ariel Parkington of the Parkington Sisters on violin, Kristin Slipp on backing vocals and George Ban-Weiss on bass – through her new, distantly stormy, nebulously kinetic suite Black Inscription, which explores oceanic eco-catastrophe.

While the overall atmosphere remained on the somber side, tempos and meters shifted and varied considerably throughout the more-or-less contiguous suite. Bossi propelled the beast with remarkable restraint, taking into consideration the space’s intimate, rather dry sonics.

Likewise, Kihlstedt and Parkington’s violin lines were terse and purposeful, whether building angst-fueled, emphatic crescendos or more atmospheric harmonies. The polyrhythmic interweave between voices – pretty much everyone in the band sang – and the instruments added to the relentless unease.

The group opened with a twinkling, undulating, funk-tinged psychedelic soul instrumental that brought to mind early 70s Mies Davis, or a Roy Ayers Film score. From there the group worked spare, alternating voices over odd meters, with a 80s Peter Gabriel-style anthemic sensibility. Then they went more hypnotic and intense, bringing to mind early 80s Siouxsie & the Banshees without the microtonal vocals.

The suite’s centerpiece was the title number, a slow, towering, Pink Floyd-style theme referencing what appeared to be some sort of ominous seaside motif. That symphonic grandeur would recur later in the suite, as did that reference, in one of a handful of voiceovers by a veteran deep-sea diver.

Lingering, occasionally flaring minor-key guitar melodies rose and fell over a fat low end sometimes taken even further into the depths by the bass’s octave pedal or envelope-shifting effects. Meanwhile, the strings, swooshy keyboards and the womens’ voices built lushly kaleidoscopic astringencies that alluded to but never rose to fever pitch. This was more about shock and awe than sheer terror, although there were a couple of detours into David Lynch film score-style menace.

The visuals and voiceovers took a backseat to the music: glistening sea life in the depths and infrequent detritus quickly gave way to geometric overlays, while the narrator mused about the nuts and bolts – and thrills – of descending far beneath the waves. If we’re lucky, the Prototype Festival folks had the presence of mind to record one of these performances so that everyone who missed it can enjoy it. This show was definitely worth releasing as a live album – and will reprised today to conclude the festival, with performances at 4 and 9:30 PM. Tickets are pricy – $30 – but the show is worth it, and they’re still available as of this morning.

Looking Back and Forward to Some of the Most Electrifying Large Ensemble Shows in NYC

There are very few eighteen-piece groups in the world, let alone New York,  led by women. Even fewer of those bandleaders are singers. Here in Manhattan we have Brianna Thomas and Marianne Solivan, who have assembled their own big bands to back them from time to time. But they play mostly standards. Sara McDonald, who fronts the NYChillharmonic, writes some of the world’s catchiest yet most unpredictable music for large ensemble. Watching their show at Joe’s Pub back in May was akin to seeing a young Maria Schneider emerge from Gil Evans’ towering influence twenty years ago – not because McDonald’s music sounds anything like Schneider’s, but because it’s so distinctive and irresistibly fun. And the scariest thing of all is that McDonald still growing as a composer.

Over the last couple of years, she’s invented her own genre, and concretized it with equal amounts depth and surprise. The occasional lapse toward the corporate urban pop she may have been immersed in as a child is gone, replaced by a lavish sound with equal parts puckishness and gravitas. Radiohead is the obvious influence, but McDonald switches out icy techiness and relentless cynicism for a far more dynamic range of textures. Keeping a big band together that plays steadily for a month or two and then goes on hiatus as the band members do their own thing is a herculean task, especially as far as tightness is concerned, but this time out she’d whipped them into shape to nail the split-second changes – and there were a lot of them.

A NYChillharmonic show is best experienced as a whole. Ideas leap out, only to be subsumed in a distant supernova of brass, or a starry trail from the strings, or a calming, beachy wash from the reeds. Then that riff, in any number of clever disguises, will pop out later. McDonald works from the same playbook the best classical and film composers use, beginning with a simple singalong hook, embellishing it and then taking it to all sorts of interesting places. McDonald’s are more interesting than most. The lucky crew who got to go there this time out comprised Albert Baliwas, Brian Plautz, David Engelhard, Dean Buck and Eitan Gofman on saxes; trombonists Karl Lyden, Seth Weaver, Nathan Wood and Dillon Garret; trumpeters Rachel Therrien, Michael Sarian, Caleb McMahon and Chris Lucca; pianist Eitan Kenner, bassist Mike DeiCont, guitarist Steven Rogers and drummer Pat Agresta, plus a string quartet of Kiho Yutaka, Audrey Hayes, Jenna Sobolewski and Susan Mandel

Throughout the set, she and the group employed just as many subtle shifts as striking ones. Odd meters would filter to the bottom and then straighten out as the whole ensemble would enter over a pulsing quasi-canon from the brass or moodily loopy electric piano. More dramatically, the orchestra would drop down to just McDonald and the rhythm section, then leap back in at the end of a bar or when a chorus kicked in, such as there are choruses in her music – recurrent themes are everywhere, but never where you expect them.

On the mic, McDonald – who’s also grown immensely as a singer over the last several months – would vary her delivery depending on the song’s content, whether slyly coy, or uneasily insistent, or with one fullscale wail late in the set to illustrate some kind of apocalypse or at least a dramatic end to something good. Lately she’s been lending her voice to the even more enigmatically improvisational rock band Loosie. And she’s also been known to sing with the much crazier, high-voltage Jazzrausch Bigand, who are making their Lincoln Center debut this August 31 at 7:30 PM at the atrium space on Broadway just north of 62nd St. If you’re going, get there on time because it could get pretty wild.

You Bred Raptors? Bring Their Cinematic, Instantly Recognizable, Individualistic Grooves to Drom Tomorrow Night

If you pass through the station at Union Square at night, you’ve probably seen one of New York’s most distinctive, high-voltage bands. You Bred Raptors? typically hold fort over the N and R platforms there. Just the sight of Peat Rains, Bryan Wilson and Patrick Bradley wailing on eight-string bass, cello and drums, respectively, is enough to make pretty much anybody stop dead in their tracks. Then there’s the relentless barrage of riffs, and textures, and epic cinematic vistas that transcend any concept of a cello-metal band, let alone what those low-end instruments can typically do. Are these irrepressible instrumentalists a funk band? Sometimes, sure. Postrock? Why not? Prog, too? Umm…while there will probably be some hobbity old men in Gentle Giant tour shirts from 1974 who will dig this stuff, not really – You Bred Raptors? are too tuneful and purposeful. They’re playing the album release show for their new one International Genetics tomorrow night, June 15 at 8 PM at Drom; advance tix are $15 and are still available.

The album – streaming at Bandcamp – opens with the slinky Bayonette, Rains switching between anchoring Wilson’s dancing cello lines and burning with big distorted chords: imagine Break of Reality but with a metal edge. The second number, Polkadot has a playful, catchy minor-key Balkan-tinged groove with tasty, baroque-tinged harmonies between the cello and the high strings of the bass, peaking out with a sweet new wave of British heavy metal.

Ringing and resonant glockenspiel from Bradley carries the melody in Bellflower, an unexpectedly summery soul tune that builds toward a brisk highway theme. Stalemate has a trip-hop sway and more intricate baroque exchanges between bass and cello; Jethro Tull only wish they played Bach as tightly as these guys do this, all the way to a starkly fiery early ELO-ish peak.

Lagoon has an easygoing giraffe-walking pace, tinges of Afrobeat from the bass, then shifting to a muted suspense. Sharks & Minnows follows a bucolic, brisk stroll fueled by Wilson’s rustic lines, then predators loom in from the shadows and eventually all hell breaks loose. The band brings the glock ripples back for Vault, a wryly strutting baroque-rock number.

The crescendoing, anthemic Hyperbole is the album’s funkiest track. Melancholy cello contrasts with janglerock guitar lines from the bass and bright glock touches in Eyehole of a Domino. There’s gritty frustration boiling over into rage and hints of flamenco in the growling 6/8 phrases of Kowtow circle around.

Smithereens, the album’s most epic track, begins as an bittersweet, elegaic march – a wartime parable maybe? – and morphs into an art-rock take on a folk hymn theme of sorts. The album winds up with Ass to Ass, most likely the only trip-hop art-rock canon ever written. Pound for pound, this is one of the catchiest albums of the year – and as tersely as the band plays here, they take these songs to some pretty crazy places live. Recommended if you like Radiohead, the Mars Volta, Los Crema Paraiso and Rasputina.

A Rare Brooklyn Show and a New Record From the Great Aimee Mann

You know that voice: cool, reserved, minutely nuanced. You know those melancholy major/minor changes and Beatlesque melodies. You know that withering cynicism, that jaundiced eye, those double entendres you wish you’d written. If you don’t, Aimee Mann’s latest album Mental Illness is as good a place to start as any. Not bad for somebody who’s been making music since the 80s.

She doesn’t play Brooklyn a lot – although she did record a live DVD there. A future daily New York music blog owner brought a date to that one, at St. Ann’s Warehouse in the summer of 2004. The date didn’t go anywhere – Mann probably would have seen that coming a mile away. Or maybe she’d say it was just as well.

Believe it or not, you can bring a date to see Mann in Brooklyn, because for some reason her June 26 show at the Music Hall of Williamsburg isn’t sold out as of today. Which is even crazier since fellow cynic, Silicon Valley satirist/songwriter Jonathan Coulton is opening the night at 8. It won’t be a cheap date since general admission is $35 –  in order to avoid the embarrassment of spending even more you’re going to have to pick up your tickets at the cash table at the Mercury Lounge before 7 PM on a weeknight. But it could be worth it.

The new album came out earlier this year and is streaming at Spotify. Even by Mann’s standards, it’s a subdued, gloomy affair. It’s mostly acoustic. Mann plays guitar and bass, Jamie Edwards filling the Jon Brion role on keys and guitar, with Jay Bellerose on drums and longtime sideman Paul Bryan on bass along with a lavish string section that gives this album genuinely epic grandeur in places.

The opening track, Goose Snow Cone paints a bleak, wintry chamber-pop picture of holding on by one’s fingernails. “Always melt at the feet of the devil I know,” Mann laments. “I just wanted a place but I ended up gone.” There are more drug metaphors here than on any Mann album since 2002’s iconic Lost in Space.

The  stately, waltzing Stuck in the Past, with its major/minor Beatles changes, is classic Mann, Richard Dodd’s stark cello rising to take centerstage: “Like drawing rings around Saturn,  a shadow is cast, but now it falls a pattern.” Another waltz, You Never Loved Me is all the more disconsolate for how sparse and direct it is: the tumbling Spectorian drums as the song winds out are an apt touch

Rollercoasters, a slowly swaying, fingerpicked ballad awash in fairground images, is one of the great drug songs ever, and maybe the best one on the album. White powder isn’t something Ward White has ever written about, but if he did, the song might sound like this.

Slow and lush, heavy like a thunderstorm, Lies of Summer doesn’t reveal whether the narrator is addressing a prisoner or a dead person until the very end:

Saw you at the fall
Picture on a closed circuit
Boy you lost it all it
Thinking you could rework it

The dancing string arrangement can’t mask the wrath in the art-rock anthem Patient Zero – consider,  just for starters, what that title implies.

News filtered over the transom
That a villain ended up with a part
You paid your respects like a ransom
To a role that was doomed from the start

The title Good for Me, with its shivery ELO stings, is sarcastic – of course, right? It’s about self-deception:. “What a waste of a smoke machine,” Mann intones, and then immediately launches into a litany of powder drug metaphors. She follows it with Knock It Off, a kiss-off anthem and the album’s most opaque number.

Mann revisits the doomed boxing imagery she worked so inimitably on 2005’s The Forgotten Arm in Philly Sinks, yet another waltz. Then she picks up the pace – just a little – with Simple Fix. Three guesses as to what this one’s about. After all this pain, you can hardly blame her for setting her sights on “prizes of adrenaline.”

The album winds up on a catchy and surprisingly simple note with Poor Judge (as in “my heart is a poor judge”). If Magnolia is Mann’s commonly acknowledged masterpiece and Lost in Space a less common one, this is in the same league.. You’ll see it on the best albums of 2017 page along with recent releases by Ran Blake and Dominique Eade, Alice Lee and Ward White.

Agnes Obel Brings Her Creepy Waltzes to the West Village Saturday Night

Multi-keyboardist/singer Agnes Obel writes broodingly catchy songs that span from minimalist chamber pop to more ornate art-rock. She loves waltz time: most of the songs on her new album Citizen of Glass, streaming at Spotify, have a slow 3/4 pulse. David Lynch has given her his imprimatur, which makes sense, although as a point of reference, she’s closer to Basia Bulat than Julee Cruise. Obel’s got a New York gig this Saturday night, March 11 at the Poisson Rouge at 7:30 PM. Advance tix are $20.

Obel plays all the keyboards on the album other than Daniel Matz’s trautonium, an early analog synthesizer that sounds like a chorus of shortwave radios. Kristina Koropecki’s alternately swooping and dancing cello multitracks add lushness and lustre to the moodily waltzing opening number, Stretch Your Eyes: it wouldn’t be out of place as a backing track on a classic 90s RZA Wu-tang joint.

Familiar has the…ummm…familiar feel of an icy 90s stainless-steel-counter club trip-hop number, like Portishead with guy/girl vocals: it’s likely that Obel is simply multitracking those harmonies with a pitch pedal. To her credit, Obel writes instrumentals as well as vocal numbers; the first of these, Red Virgin Soil is a hypnotically circling minor-key, cello-driven waltz.

A more stately piano waltz, It’s Happening Again has a distantly troubled, hazy Marissa Nadler-esque vibe, a look over the shoulder at a haunted past. Obel also draws comparisons to Nadler over 3/4 cadences throughout Stone, which  brings to mind Philip Glass’ film work.

Trojan Horses is the album’s best and creepiest track, in the same vein as Clint Mansell’s most ominously circular film scores. “The end of time has just begun, I hear it call your name,” Obel soberly intones early in the title track, the most minimalist but arguably catchiest song here. That could also be said about Golden Green, a trance-inducing round with Bach-like echoes, Obel playing through a vibraphone patch. 

The album winds up with the melancholy, resonant piano instrumental Grasshopper and then Mary, a sad reminiscence that could be about a lesbian relationship, or maybe witchcraft, or maybe both. Once again, Obel’s signature allusiveness draws you in.

Art-Rock Bandleader Hilary Downes Releases a Searingly Metaphorical New Solo Album

From the late zeros to the early part of this decade, pianist Hilary Downes was frontwoman for the Snow, who rank with Changing Modes and Botanica as one of the greatest art-rock bands to call this city their home. Since then, Downes has hardly been idle, and she’s finally releasing her similarly brilliant debut as a solo bandleader, Secrets of Birds – streaming at Bandcamp – at Barbes this Saturday night, Jan 28 at 8 PM. Folk noir standout Jessie Kilguss guests on vocals; eclectic A-list accordionist Will Holshouser leads one of his many projects to open the night at 6. After the Barbes show, most of the crowd are heading over to Freddy’s for Robin Aigner‘s Leonard Cohen tribute night.

Downes has a distinctive voice – a crystalline, often swoony yet precise delivery – a laser-like sense for a mot juste and a penchant for grim metaphors and multiple meanings. Meaning, she doesn’t stop at double entendres. The band behind her rises to the occasion to create a lush backdrop for her sometimes elusive, sometimes crushingly direct narrratives.

The opening track is Caldera, an elegant but venomously interconnected series of mythological scenes: “One could predict that the love they felt was equal to the harm they could inflict,” Downes intones, hushed and deadpan. Jeffrey Schaeffer’s waves of cymbals and sardonic swoops from the string section – violinist Karl Meyer and cellist Sara Stalnaker – drive the point home at the end with piercing accuracy.

Downes brings her torchiest nuance to the swing shuffle Deep Well, awash in chilly water metaphors and nocturnal unease:

Would that she could hold the night
Cold and without wind
To hold all of it oh so tight
Until it let her in

Her vocals bring calm and tenderness alongside Mike Cohen’s lingering guitars in contrast with Meyer’s stark violin throughout the optimistic Americana-tinged ballad Hearts Plateau. Then the band picks up the pace with the steamy, bossa-tinged Masters of the Table, a feast of imagery that gives the bandleader a slam-dunk opportunity to flip the script. She’s a master of turning the tables on what you might expect.

Dylan Nowik’s growling, stately lead guitar rises over darkly baroque strings and Cohen’s noir-tinged jangle on The Owl, a majestic and subtly sardonic portrait of a predator. Downes pulls out all the stops in Canon of Proportions, a purposeful, backbeat-driven anthem that’s the key to the album’s bitter central narrative:

Left long shadows in the sand
His arms, wings of a plane
He was Davinci’s man
His soul dwarfed by his frame

Matt Brandau’s boomy bass kicks off the album’s best and most cruelly vivid song, The Gist. It wouldn’t be out of place on Portishead’s Live at Roseland album:

Lady luck, she found her wealth
Took it from her former self
Queen of the sky, queen of the plain
She made herself a nest where birds could lay

The band take their deepest plunge into noir on the album’s title track: “Save me from these thoughts, divebomb every part,” Downes laments, yet she’s just as defiant: “I’m not afraid of the darkness in my way.” She ends the album with the death-fixated psychedelic soul ballad The Word and then the waltzing, surprisingly optimistic Rainbow. It’s only January, but we have a real contender for best original album of 2017 here.