New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Tag: comedy

The Ghost Train Orchestra Steam Back to Upbeat, Playful Terrain

Back in January, this blog asserted that “It’s impossible to think of a better way to start the year than watching Brian Carpenter’s Ghost Train Orchestra slink and swing their way through the darkly surreal album release show for their new one, Book of Rhapsodies Vol. 2 at Jazz at Lincoln Center.” The album is actually far more lighthearted and frequently cartoonish, with ambitious charts that strongly evoke 50s lounge jazz oddball innovator Juan Garcia Esquivel. Once again, the ensemble have created a setlist of strangely compelling obscurities from the 30s and 40s.

In an era when nobody buys albums anymore, the Ghost Train Orchestra have sold an amazing number of them, topping the jazz charts as a hot 20s revival act. Yet for the last five years or so, frontman/trumpeter Carpenter has been revisiting his noir roots from back in the 90s, with lavishly rewarding results. This release – streaming at Bandcamp – is characteristically cinematic, but seldom very dark. It opens with cartoon music maven Raymond Scott’s Confusion Among a Fleet of Taxi Cabs. a romp with horn and siren effects that comes together with a jubilantly brassy, New Orleans-tinged pulse, bringing to mind the Microscopic Septet at their most boisterous.

Likewise, Mazz Swift’s violin and Dennis Lichtman’s clarinet spiral and burst over the scampering pulse of bassist Michael Bates and drummer Rob Garcia in Hal Herzon’s Hare and Hounds – meanwhile, some goof in the band is boinging away on a jawharp. Reginald Forsythe’s Deep Forest, which Carpenter wryly introduces as “A hymn to darkness, part one,” is closer to Esquivel taking a stab at covering Black and Tan Fantasy, guitarist Avi Bortnick adding spikily ominous contrast beneath the band’s the ragtimey stroll.

The strutting miniature Pedigree on a Pomander Walk, the second Herzon tune, is just plain silly. Carpenter’s tongue-in-cheek muted lines mingle with Ben Kono’s tenor sax and the rest of the horns in Alec Wilder’s Walking Home in Spring, Ron Caswell’s tuba bubbling underneath. The latin-tinged Deserted Ballroom, a final Herzon number, has a balmy bounce over a creepy chromatic vamp, a choir of voices supplying campy vocalese over lush strings and a Chicago blues solo from Bortnick. A neat trick ending takes it into far darker, Beninghove’s Hangmen-ish territory.

The disquiet is more distant but ever-present in A Little Girl Grows Up, a Wilder tune, despite the childlike vocals and coyly buoyant, dixieland-flavored horns. The band make Esquivellian Romany swing out of Chopin with Fantasy Impromptu: Swift’s classical cadenza toward the end is devilishly fun. They follow that with another Wilder number, Kindergarten Flower Pageant, which would be tongue-in-cheek fun save for that annoying kiddie chorus. Sometimes children really should be seen and not heard.

A playful minor-key cha-cha, Lament for Congo – another Forsythe tune – has bristling guitar, lush strings, faux-shamanic drums, Tarzan vocals and a lively dixieland interlude. The strings in Wilder’s The House Detective Registers look back to Django Reinhardt as much as the winds take the music back a decade further. The final tune, by Forsythe, is Garden of Weed, which doesn’t seem to be about what you probably think it is. It’s a somber, early Ellingtonian-flavored ragtime stroll, Garcia’s hardware enhancing the primitive, lo-fi ambience, up to a livelier exchange of voices.

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Irresistibly Quirky Ukulele Fun at the Jalopy

Ukulele bands are supposed to be funny. Saturday night at the Jalopy, the twinbill of Ukulele Scramble and the Ukuladies kept everybody chuckling and frequently laughing out loud for the better part of two hours. Name a comedian who can pull that off.

True to their name, Ukulele Scramble play a lot of mashups. When they’re not twisting styles from across the decades – and centuries – into knots, they’re playing ridiculous segues, and repertoire that was definitely never meant to be played on the uke. When’s the last time you heard ukulele versions of classical compositions by Charles Ives or Amy Beach? Ukulele Scramble did both, and well!

Six years ago, Robin Hoffman described herself as an aspiring uke player. Her main gig was visual art: her two coffee table books feature the illustrations she drew as a regular in the audience at the Jalopy. Last night, on the same stage where she captured a generation of New York Americana music talent in all sorts of revealing, kinetic poses, she played Bach. That was midway through a spiky, sparkling cover of Pink Floyd’s uneasy psychedelic pop classic See Emily Play.

Her sparring partner in this duo project, Richard Perlmutter sparred back and forth with the audience in an endless “name that tune” game when he wasn’t spinning precise spirals and nimbly plucking out complex classical chords. At least as complex as you can play on a uke, anyway

Hoffman sang the night’s funniest song, a version of the Brahms lullaby with new lyrics about being kept awake by a fly in the bedroom – the joke is too good to give away. They did Five Foot Two, Eyes of Blue, which more than one uke player in the crowd agreed was the first tune that pretty much everybody learns to play on it. Throughout the set, Perlmutter’s flinty vocals contrasted with Hoffman’s cool torch-singer delivery throughout all sorts of clever syncopation and intricate harmony. The most dizzyingly impressive number was a tonguetwisting can-can remake of piece by Offenbach.

The Ukuladies used to be much more ubiquitous than they are now: ten years ago, you’d find them at Rodeo Bar one day, then at Barbes or Joe’s Pub the next. So it’s no surprise that their irrepressible, theatrical shtick was more about breaking the fourth wall this time out – and maybe especially fresh because of it. Tapdancer Heather Warfel a.k.a. Cousin Bunnie flashed a series of charmingly lo-fi props while uke players Katie Down and Mary Myers a.k.a. Genevieve and her Aunt Mary harmonized together through a mix of Andrews Sisters girl-group jazz numbers and sardonic originals.

Their funniest of those was Put Another Nickel in the Nickelodeon, interspersed with innumerable snippets of cheesy pop songs. They also treated the crowd to Asshole in a SUV – a classic Brooklyn song if there ever was one – and a tongue-in-cheek one about getting gaymarried that managed to poke fun at both those who do and those who object to it. Singing saw player Philippa Thompson a.k.a.  Jimmy Lu – who’d just played a set with another excellent Jalopy act, M Shanghai String Band at the Brooklyn Americana Festival earlier in the day – led the quartet through a witheringly cynical bossa nova parody. Warfel got a turn on lead vocals in a number where it was revealed that the Ukuladies aren’t really a family band: they’re her backing unit.

Ukulele Scramble, based in Massachusetts, are playing Sept 27 at 6:30 PM at the Merriam-Gilbert Public Library, 3 W Main St in West Brookfield, MA.

Video Satire of the Day – LMAO

If twee overkill has pushed you past the boiling point, you’ll feel deliciously avenged by Passive Aggressives Anonymous’ new video, (Let’s Have a Nice White) Middle Class Male Cry (via Youtube). If NPR doesn’t pick this deadpan, venomous faux bossa pop tune for a Tiny Desk Concert, there’s something wrong. Frontguy John Valenti’s outfit and haircut are just as spot-on sick as the song. Weird Al Yankovic meets Tredici Bacci with a Morrissey wannabe out front – it’s funny just to think about.

A Rare Christmas Album That’s Not Cloying and Annoying

Christmas music rots your brain. It’s true! Scientific studies have confirmed what most of us have known all along. No wonder, considering how repetitive, unsophisticated and utterly lacking in dynamics most Christmas songs are.

Into this musical wasteland swings Champian Fulton, one of the great wits in jazz, with her irresistible and stunningly dynamic new album Christmas With Champian, streaming at Spotify. There hasn’t been a Christmas record this fun or this subtly irreverent since dub reggae band Super Hi-Fi’s two woozy instrumental albums of “holiday favorites.”

Fulton is the best singing pianist in jazz. There isn’t another instrumentalist out there with her mic skills, nor a singer with her fearsome chops at the keys. More than anything else, this is a great jazz record in a Santa hat. Fulton never ceases to find both poignancy and exuberant fun in the least expected places. For the latter, check out how she Sarah Vaughans White Christmas, the album’s opening track. Better watch out if you don’t want that snow, because Fulton sounds like she might smack you upside the head! It’s a good guess that Irving Berlin, who cut his teeth in ragtime, would approve of this jaunty, bluesy arrangement.

Fulton’s take of Pretty Paper, recast as a brisk jazz waltz, has to be the saddest version of the song ever recorded. That vendor girl, out there in the cold with all that merch she has to unload before the 25th of the month or she loses all her money! Likewise, the solo piano-and-vocal version of I’ll Be Home for Christmas is balmy and plaintive: when Fulton hits the end of the chorus, “if only in my dreams” packs a wallop.

Walking in a Winter Wonderland gets reinvented as wry viper swing, with some coyly emphatic trumpet from her dad, Stephen Fulton, who also lights up a carefully articulated version of Gracias a Dios. She sings that one in Spanish, hardly a stretch considering her Mexican heritage – and the point where she follows her dad’s solo with a deadpan jinglebell solo of her own is subtly priceless. Drummer Fukushi Tainaka’s elegant brushwork and David Williams’ terse bass add subtle bolero hints.

The Christmas Song – better known as Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire – is one of only a couple of tracks here with a genuine jazz pedigree, but Fulton goes for devious, tongue-in-cheek humor rather than trying to follow in Nat Cole’s footsteps.  She reinvents Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas as midtempo swing, with hints of Dinah Washington and an unexpectedly dark intro that edges toward barrelhouse.

Daughter and father team up to remake Christmas Time Is Here as a bittersweet, lustrous, languidly tropical instrumental ballad. Likewise, she transforms A Child Is Born into a bluesy waltz, with a melismatic, insistent bass solo. Her piano solo in a wee-hours take of The Christmas Waltz goes in the opposite direction, with enough droll ornamentation for a fifty-foot tree.

Her version of Sleigh Ride pairs a boisterous trumpet solo with an unexpectedly seductive vocal and teasingly allusive piano, an approach she revisits in Let It Snow. The Dinah-inspired piano-and-vocal final number, Merry Merry Christmas, is the only Fulton original here, but could easily date from sixty years ago – and might make it to your local supermarket someday.

Jamie Kilstein Brings His Hilarious, Spot-On Spoofs and Fearless Political Rock to the East Village

Jamie Kilstein is the Jello Biafra of jamband rock. He’s fearless, he’s funny, and he calls bullshit on just about every every corporate-sponsored lie and right-wing myth out there. On one hand, making fun of Republicans is like shooting fish in a barrel. On the other, Kilstein’s critique goes far deeper than simply the horror-stricken thought that barring the unforeseen, Donald Trump will be our next President. Together with his Citizen Radio co-founder Allison Kilkenny, Kilstein has a new book, Newsfail: Climate Change, Feminism, Gun Control, and Other Fun Stuff We Talk About Because Nobody Else Will. He’s also got a LMFAO debut album, A Bit Much – with his band the Agenda, streaming at Spotify – and a weekly Wednesday 6 PM residency this month at Sidewalk.

The greatest pitfall in writing political songs is that it’s easy to let yourself get strident, or doctrinaire, to start believing your own bullshit. Preaching to the converted never did anything to change the world: it’s the people beyond the amen choir that you have to reach, and Kilstein does it with the kind of machinegunning barrage of one-liners that he honed in standup comedy. He leaves no stone unturned, no target standing: the NRA, the banksters, racists dressed in both Klan garb and business suits all get the bozack. On one hand, Kilstein hardly sugarcoats anything: his jokes can be awfully grim. On the other hand, this isn’t just the funniest album of the year, it might be the funniest album of the last few years. And is it ever relevant. And even the music is good! Kilstein distinguishes himself as as funky and fluent guitarist, with a solid band – guitarist Nick Phaneuf, bassist Greg Glasson, drummer Joe Magistro and cellist Jane Scarpantoni – behind him.

There’s an amusing video of the album’s opening track, Fuck the NRA, up on the front page of Kilstein’s site.  Over a purposeful hard funk backdrop, Kilstein speedraps both sides of a hilarious if sadly accurate dialogue about gun violence: “The Constitution didn’t say shit about your using Glocks to mow down Black teenagers ‘cause you’re afraid of anything not wearing a Klan outfit…you’re Steven Segall in real life, have you ever seen that guy run in real life, it’s terrible!”

Tiny Humans is closer to Matthew Grimm doing a spoof of early 90s open-chord indie rock. On one level, it’s a black-humor response in defense of those of us who’ve chosen not to have kids. On the other hand, the subtext is that if we don’t get global warming under control, those of us of childrearing age will be the last old people on the planet…if we make it that far.

With the next track, War, Kilstein goes back to mile-a-minute spoken word over a blisteringly noisy psych-punk-metal backdrop, akin to Jello Biafra right after the Dead Kennedys got finished off by the PMRC. It’s a spot-on, sarcastic look at American exceptionalism and the demonization of Muslims. Like the two guys who, after the Boston bombing, got fingered by some idiot and subsequently pulled off a plane for speaking Arabic, which, as Kilstein puts it, “doesn’t sound like Blake Shelton lyrics.”

Every Country Song Ever makes fun of New Nashville warmongering: “I found freedom on 9/11, when the Iraqis flew into Tower 7 – I read it!” Kilstein’s befuddled narrator crows. Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell takes a shot at homophobia, from the opposition to gay marriage, to Bible-bangers quoting scripture: it’s Kilstein at his quotable best, and there’s even a good bluesmetal guitar solo at the end.

The surprisingly subtle Nerd Love takes a poke at both cliched corporate singer-songwriters and film geeks. Scared White Boy Blues is even funnier as both anti-racist broadside and parody of lame white funk: the backing vocals are priceless. Kilstein returns to rapidfire spoken word over slinky no wave guitar with This Is NYC, which connects the dots between the sweatshop economy, gentrification and homelessness, among other issues. Then, with the swaying, Hendrix-inspired JFC, he goes after the anti-choice mob.

Catcall is pretty hilarious, a funky tune that offers karmic payback for would-be macho dudes who harass women. Kilstein ramps up the jokes about male insecurity with the savagely funny How Not to Be a Dick: “Male Presidents have bombed the shit out of the Middle East and don’t have their periods as an excuse – they’re just fucking sociopaths.” The final track is the suspiciously low-key Maniac, possibly a spoof of PC hippie pop.  Most comedy albums you hear once and that’s all you really need: this one stands up to repeated listening. It’s a good bet that Kilstein is twice as funny live.

Wheeler Walker Jr. Brings His Sick Spinal Tap C&W to the Mercury

Don’t listen to Wheeler Walker Jr’‘s latest album Redneck Shit – streaming at Spotify – in public, unless you’re cool with people giving you weird looks. Which they will when you suddenly bust out laughing in a crowded subway car, or at work when the office is really quiet except for your hee-hawing…or maybe when your boss fires you on the spot for playing it over the PA. Walker might be the filthiest songwriter out there. Forget Weezy, forget Fitty, forget anything that exists in hip-hop: Walker’s country shenanigans put all those guys to shame. David Allan Coe, by comparison, is a mild-mannered wimp with a meh sense of humor. Sometimes Walker’s so over-the-top that it makes you wonder if he might actually be serious…or just hell-bent on offending everyone within earshot with his X-rated rhymes. He’s bringing those crazy songs to the Mercury at 10:30 PM on June 22; general admission is $15.

Much as this is a collection of sex jokes, it’s also a spot-on spoof of lots of familiar country themes. It opens with the title track, a twisted parody of southern pride anthems. The guy in this one gets his kicks exposing himself at Walmart, making scat videos of his mom and puts stuff where you might not expect it…just to see if it fits. Beer Weed Cooches is as hilariously plausible as the album’s first song song is absurd. See, the guy hanging with some random girl at some random southen roadhouse is really high, getting drunker with each beer, unable to decide whether or not to watch the crappy honkytonk cover band or hang outside and gleefully anticipate a happy ending. Realistically, he’s probably so toasted he won’t get that far.

Family Tree finds new ways to start family drama – the guy in this one is really all-purpose. Can’t Fuck You Off My Mind puts an X-rated spin on a hallowed C&W trope. Fuck You Bitch does double duty as a sendup of selfie culture and also fluffy mid-70s Nashvillle pop ballads. Drop ‘Em Out explores mammary fixations, while Eatin’ Pussy, Kickin’ Ass is a poke at boogie rock from George Thorogood to ZZ Top. The rest of the album parodies stick-together-no-matter-what anthems, meat-and-potatoes highway rock, funky Litttle Feat-style jamrock and redneck metal bands.

Throughout the album, the group behind Wheeler competently and amusingly rehashes one cliche after another, with inspired lead guitar and pedal steel. On one level, this is the sonic equivalent of artificially flavored blue soda or or deep-fried Oreos, stuff you’d only ingest in front of your friends so you could shock them. Lots of people will call it tasteless, and gross, and juvenile. Which it is, no question about it – but it’s also really funny.

Comic Relief at the Expense of the Goths…If There Are Any Left

This is just too funny to leave sitting on the hard drive. Drop whatever you’re doing and grab a free download of Raleigh rocker Scott Phillips a.k.a. the Monologue Bombs‘ single Eighties Night. Hardly ever does a spoof this cruelly spot-on come over the transom here: cheesy fake Beethoven, Trenchcoat Mafia faux-angst and a perfect snapshot of what we had to endure at certain venues until the goth thing timed out and was supplanted by emo. The b-side sounds like Mellencamp at his darkest, but with keys instead of guitars. The Monologue Bombs open a good twinbill on December 29 at 6 (six) PM at Freddy’s, followed at 7:30 by iconic noir chanteuse Bliss Blood ‘s creepy torch song project with similarly dark flamenco-jazz/noir guitarist Al Street.

Snarky Fun and Some Poignancy with Joey Arias and Paul Capsis at Joe’s Pub

Joey Arias seemed to be having the time of his life Sunday night at the end of last month at his sold-out show at Joe’s Pub, a twinbill with Australian singer/personality Paul Capsis. Arias’ firebrand lead guitarist and musical director Viva DeConcini was also having a ball, especially with her effects pedals, shifting deviously from one layer of whoosh and wail to another over the steady drums of Ray Rizzo, Mary Feaster’s melodic bass and Mara Rosenbloom’s characteristically judicious, elegant piano lines. Titled Rock & Roll Fantasy, the show was something of a departure for Arias, who’s best known as a jazz stylist, one of the few men alive who can channel Billie Holiday. “I feel like I’m at CBGB’s!” he grinned, with the authority of somebody who goes back that far and actually went to the place during its heyday. Maybe with Klaus Nomi, whom he worked with, and told a lascivious anecdote about, a naked and aroused Jean-Michel Basquiat walking out of Nomi’s bathroom in that one.

Considering how funny Arias’ act is, would it be unfair to give away the jokes? In this case, probably not – he most likely won’t be using any of these in the near future, anyway. He and the band opened with Purple Haze, Arias winding it up by vocalizing the backward-masked effects on the album, then harmonizing way, way up in his falsetto against the feedback echoing from DeConcini’s amp. The only thing he missed was the chance to wail, “‘Scuse me while I kiss this guy!”

A little later, he brought some Nomi-esque drama to Cream’s The White Room, evoking a hallucinatory, alien character, maybe locked away in a padded cell. Otherwise, Arias got plenty of laughs for what he didn’t do. When he reached the big crescendo on the chorus of Bowie’s Life of Mars, he didn’t budge from his midrange. Likewise, as the show wound out, he mumbled his way through Robert Plant’s faux-orgasmic vocalese on a couple of Led Zep radio hits as DeConcini wowed the audience with her flashy flights and string-wrenching bends. And in a departure from all the campy hijinks and theatrics, he brought an unexpected somberness and plaintiveness to the show with a lone Lady Day cover. As one audience member pondered during a recent Arias appearance at Pangea, how would his act go over in a mainstream jazz club? Would the black eyeliner, and the bling, and the garters distract from how otherwise unselfconsciously affecting, and distinctive, and purist a jazz singer Arias is?

Where Arias was making a stylistic depsrtuere, Capsis is all about the rock. Decked out as Amy Winehouse, he did a spot-on impersonation both vocally and jokewise, at one point practically drooling over someone’s food. His take on Janis Joplin was just as evocative, all frenetic and panting and breathless. Later on, after a change into a gold lame Elvis suit, he made the missing connection between the Eurythmics’ Sweet Dreams Are Made of These and the Doors’ People Are Strange. And the best song of the night might have been a chillingly expansive take of Patti Smith’s Pissing in a River: it was as if the ghost of Richard Sohl was wafting from the piano on that one. Arias is at Pangea (Second Ave between 11th and 12th Sts)  tonight, August 3 at 7:30 PM, back to doing his drag jazz chanteuse thing; cover is $25 and since it’s a small place, early arrival is a good idea.

The Dan Band Celebrate the Release of Their Sick New Album at Joe’s Pub

The Dan Band are best known for their assaultively fun live shows. Frontman Dan Finnerty kickstarted his career as a Hollywood actor as the foul-mouthed wedding singer in the film Old School, and has managed to take that shtick on tour for the better part of the past few years. What’s even more surprising is how much of a clamor there’s been for the Dan Band to play their smutty top 40 covers and parodies at actual weddings. To satisfy that demand, the band decided to put out their Wedding Album. For those who want a taste of Finnerty’s legendary stage antics, they’re playing the album release show at Joe’s Pub at 9:30 PM on July 11; cover is $22. Caveat: you might think twice before you sit close to the stage.

Finnerty’s no dummy. In an age where what was considered the mainstream imploded years ago, he sticks to some of the easiest targets from the past forty years, most of them from many years ago. Which makes sense: the people who grew up on radio and actually know these songs are getting old. And assuming that there is a crowd who know their cheeseball arcana, Finnerty chooses to open the album with an Air Supply number, duetting with Nicole Scherzinger. Who the hell is Nicole Scherzinger, you ask? Turns out that she’s a bit-part actress best known for her role in a liposuctioned-and-siliconed lipsync troupe, the Pussycat Dolls, about ten years ago. The song? Remarkably true to the original save for a few judiciously placed f-bombs.

One of Finnerty’s signature shticks is drunken fratboy ebonics, and he brings those front and center on a pair of schlocky old 90s “R&B” hits as well as one of 50 Cent’s more crass numbers. The joke with a couple of Beyonce songs is that Finnerty completely whitewashes them. One he does as hair-metal, revealing it for the crass, corporate caucasian commercial jingle it is. He and his competent if purposefully generic band do the other as singsongey Fall Out Boy emo-pop, a caustically spot-on illustration of how cynically corporate songwriters-for-hire construct their ditties.

The funniest numbers here are all Finnerty originals. Do It 2Night is a predictable mashup of familiar 80s new wave-tinged funk cliches, right down to the the tinny production, cheap synths and obligatory lame hip-hop bridge – which is where it gets LMAO. Three Way, a faux-sensitive Damien Rice-style ballad written with a guy from one of the kind of top 40 bands that Finnerty harshes on at his harshest, is even better, and politically incorrect to the extreme.

I Can’t Believe I Love You features Train, who in case you weren’t in gradeschool in the 90s, you probably missed; like Do It 2Night, it gets funny when you least expect it. Making Love Forever is a droll hair-metal duet with comedienne Bridget Everett,  who makes an especially good choice as a partner since her voice is so similar to Finnerty’s, and it’s hard to tell who’s singing what. The album ends with a synthy version of a strong contender for the worst song ever written – at least until the Disney autotune era – Total Eclipse of the Heart. If you’re actually thinking of using this at a wedding, spin it early before everybody’s completely in the bag and oblivious to Finnerty’s surprisingly subtle and acerbic satire. It wouldn’t be fair to spoil all the jokes here, but if you’re paying attention, most of these songs are about breaking up: just the thing you want to celebrate a marriage with, right? Taken on its own twisted merits, this album ranks with Weird Al Yankovic – and Meatloaf.

Grace McLean Steals the Show at Lincoln Center

There’s no one in the world who sounds exactly like Grace McLean. With a stiletto sense of humor, a sharp sense of history, an irresistibly infectious stage presence and a quirky, individualistic sense of melody that’s nothing short of avant garde yet incredibly catchy,  she charmed and seduced a young, energized, very drama-school-looking crowd at Lincoln Center Wednesday night with her inimitable mix of bouncy loopmusic and savagely deadpan between-song banter. McLean’s lyrical references and tunesmithing may be in the here and now, but her sensibility is pure, early-80s edgy downtown NYC punk performance art. Among more contemporary artists, she brings to mind both Killy Dwyer and Tammy Faye Starlite.

Her genius is that she draws the crowd in with her catchy, dancing hooks – her timing, rhythmwise and otherwise is as amazing as her music is strangely compelling. Then, when she’s got your head bobbing, she smacks you right there. She’s got an opera about Hildegard von Bingen currently in development, and this time out chose instead to do a song inspired by a Hildegard counterpart, St. Ursula. As McLean told it, that woman led a thousand virgins on a pilgimage to the Holy Land…where they were intercepted by Huns, who killed them all. “That’s what you had to do to be famous in the eleventh century if you were a woman,” McLean mused. But that also meant achieving the pinnacle of success for a medieval girl: “You got to join in everlasting marriage with god,” McLean beamed.

She performed most of her set by layering loops of vocals against each other and then singing over them, an art that takes split-second timing and perfect pitch to pull off, and she made it look easy. She opened the set seated at the piano for a single number, joined by a rhythm section and backup singers who’d return at the end of the show. The first couple of songs had a suspiciously sardonic urban top 40 flavor, but exactly what McLean was spoofing, if anything, wasn’t clear.

From there, things got interesting in a hurry. Her cover of Heather Christian’s Wild Animals – employing rhymes from Gertrude Stein’s lone children’s book – was as funny as it was disconcertingly trippy. McLean’s own Natural Disaster raised the gallows humor factor, something that would permeate much of the rest of the show. A mighty, anthemic number titled Where Is the White Light evoked My Brightest Diamond as McLean took a swipe at new age cluelessness, while the ethereally crescendoing waves of a diptych a little later on brought to mind Bjork at her artsiest and weirdest. Existential angst was everywhere, particularly in a later number whose momentary refrain was “I’m sick of not having the courage to be an absolute nobody.”

Elsewhere, McLean had plenty of fun with guy/girl dynamics, particularly when the music lapsed toward faux “R&B,” most memorably with a couple of what were ostensibly diary entries from her gradeschool years. She wound up the show by finding the missing link between a couple of iconic Beatles and Stones songs, closing with a rousingly Memphis-flavored take of her big va-voom crowd-pleaser My Friend’s Roommate and then a Broadway standard where she pulled out all the stops to show off a powerful, brassy mezzo-soprano. It’s impossible to think of an edgier, more entertaining way for Lincoln Center to introduce this year’s Great American Songbook series.