New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: comedy

Angela Hewitt Playfully and Insightfully Resurrects Beethoven Piano Obscurities

“The fourth pedal on my Fazioli, which raises the action and cuts the hammer strike by half, helped enormously here,” pianist Angela Hewitt explains in the liner notes to her new Beethoven Variations album, which hasn’t the web yet. She’s discussing her approach to the faster, more staccato passages in a relatively early work, the 32 Variations on an Original Theme in C Minor.

And yet, she brings a heartfelt neoromantic tinge to the quieter passages. As she explains in the album’s very detailed booklet, Beethoven basically wrote this and abandoned it. Still, it’s a colorful and not always predictable piece of music, and it gives Hewitt, who’s revered for playing Bach on the piano, a chance to explore dynamics that are less present in baroque music. As usual, she takes a painterly approach to this along with some other lesser-known Beethoven works.

The 6 Variations on an Original Theme in F Major are more relaxed and playful, the subtle humor echoing Haydn, whose shadow the composer had not yet escaped. Hewitt has a particularly good, emphatic time with the stern proto-Chopin march midway through, a far cry from the casual feel of most of what surrounds it.

Hewitt takes a very straightforward, calmly dancing, occasionally puckish approach early in the 15 Variations and a Fugue, best known as Beethoven’s early study for the Finale of his Eroica Symphony. That hardly signals how regal this music will eventually grow and how much more joyously pouncing her attack becomes.

The rest of the material here is much more obscure, and understandably so. There are two series of variations on themes by Guiseppe Paisiello, a popular late 18th century opera composer. The first is a lightweight love song, the second a folksy little tune. Neither sounds anything like Beethoven.

The final two cuts remind how little life has changed for musicians over the past couple of centuries: sometimes you have to take whatever work is available. In this case, Beethoven sat down at the piano in 1803 and fulfilled the terms of a commission from a fan in Scotland who’d asked him to come up with variations on God Save the King and Rule Brittania. Spin this at your New Years Eve party and see if anybody in the crowd gets the joke.

A Sly Christmukah Ballad From Jazz Guitarist Peter Curtis

A couple of years back jazz guitarist Peter Curtis put out the album Christmas With Your Jewish Boyfriend, a competently played collection of Xmas songs written by Jews. And there’s historical context for that. More than a century ago, for example, it wasn’t uncommon for Jews in Russia and the Pale to celebrate the Christian holiday. What’s somebody else’s simcha, anyway, when it all used to be Saturnalia?

The album’s title track is the real piece de resistance, and Curtis’ only original on it. And it’s a hoot, Curtis crooning to his shiksa GF about all the ways they can have Christmukah fun. No spoilers!

Irresistibly Goofy Dark Americana From the Brent Amaker DeathSquad

Baritone crooner Brent Amaker is best known for playing a distinctively amusing, utterly original style of Americana with his band the Rodeo. But he also has another project, the Brent Amaker DeathSquad. As you would expect, he saves his darker, more Nashville gothic oriented material for that band. They’ve got a new album, Hello, just out and streaming at Bandcamp.

They open with the title track. There’s tons of reverb on everything here, even the drums (that’s either Nozomi Momo or Bryan Crawford behind the kit). It’s one of the more tongue-in-cheek, freak-folk tinged numbers here. You can hear a little Iggy Pop in Amaker’s vocals – later on here, he covers The Passenger, a little faster and more lo-fi than the original.

Bassist Darci Carlson talks her way through the lurid Man in Charge, Amaker’s ominous tremolo guitar lingering over a fast shuffle beat, a funeral train on the express track. You Won’t Find Me is a goofy honkytonk piano-fueled duet: it comes across as Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton doing a Roger Miller song.

Burn, a fuzztoned garage rock song, sounds like the Gun Club with Lux Interior out front. Amaker really pushes to the foggy bottom of his register in Rain: just when you think it’s just a solo acoustic tune, Carlson floats in with a pillowy vocal over a plush string section.

The punkabillyish Let Me Out is the funniest song on the album: “Lemme out,” insists Amaker, from behind bars. “No way,” Carlson intones. With its keening funeral-parlor organ and a theremin solo, I’m the Big Bang is another duet, which is also just about as funny. The album’s final and most psychedelic track is Death Squad, a ghoulabilly shuffle centered around a wry conversation about medicating with booze. It was impossible to resist saving this til now for the annual monthlong Halloween celebration here, even considering that this city has been living Halloween every day since about March 16.

A Gleefully Twisted Theatrical Update on a Classic Black Comedy

For those who missed it the first time around, the 1988 black comedy Heathers remains one of the alltime great midnight movies. It stars Winona Ryder, Shannen Doherty and Lisanne Falk as a trio of sadistic, popular high school girls, all named Heather, whose mission is to make life miserable for everyone below then on the status ladder. As a satire of high school conformity and cliquishness, it’s as bleakly funny today as it was then.

It also became a popular musical. The original West End cast recording, released last year, is streaming at Spotify. What’s almost shocking is that the creators, writer Kevin Murphy and composer Laurence O’Keefe, kept the narrative in its original late 80s milieu. Back then, the internet was just a dial-up connection for diehard computer nerds, only spies and hedge fund moguls had mobile phones, and the plague of social media was yet to come. So just as in the movie, all the hazing and hostility here happens in reality rather than its virtual counterpart.

The cast are perfectly adequate singers, but the songwriting is the musical’s strongest point. Obviously, none of the original three Heathers would have been listening to anything edgier than Mariah Carey. Interestingly, Murphy and O’Keefe bring the music further into the future. This is a pop musical: while most of the music has 80s production values, with real guitars, synthesizers, bass and drums and even occasional orchestration, there are interludes that either draw on or make fun of singsongey, post-emo corporate radio fodder. Hip-hop influences also pop up in places.

The dialogue is relentlessly sharp and a lot dirtier here, compared to the movie. There’s a big “holy shit” chorus early on that’s irresistibly funny. And the characters, especially the villians, have been updated except for the social media obsessions. Sex, booze and drugs are as ubiquitous here as they are among real-life seventeen-year-olds.

“This ain’t high school, this is the Thunderdome,” embattled protagonist Veronica Sawyer (Carrie Hope Fletcher) complains as the blustery opening anthem introduces a procession of bully and victim stereotypes. The quasi-relationship between Veronica and the outsider Christian Slater character (Jamie Muscato) makes its entry earlier than in the movie: this guy also turns out to be considerably kinder and gentler. The plot twist where a couple of the jock characters are outed as gay (no spoilers for those who haven’t seen the movie) reflects a 21st century conscience. Veronica also gets caught up in a genuinely chilling metoo moment.

Suicide is also an even bigger theme in this version. As the parade of power ballads, ersatz funk and frenetic dance numbers rise to an explosive peak, the musical proves to be every bit as dark as the film.

A Big Dose of Hilarious, Sharply Lyrical, Tuneful Black Dirt Country Rock From Joe Stamm

If you’re a musician trying to build an audience, you can’t do better than Americana rocker Joe Stamm, who has one of the most sophisticated and well thought-out marketing campaigns this blog has ever encountered. There’s a catch, though…his system won’t work for you unless you have the material to back it up.

What he wants you to do when you visit his webpage is to sign up for his “online album adventure,” with a lot of freebies. So maybe you do that…and half an hour later, it hits you that you’re still there, still listening. This guy is good!

He calls his music black dirt country rock. He can be outrageously funny one moment and dead serious the next. He’s a strong singer, a hell of a storyteller and has a good sense of the kind of incident where there’s a song just waiting to be written about it. Like pretty much everybody in his line of work did before the lockdown, he made his living on the road.

When you sign up, he sends you all the stuff in a series of emails. with a lot of mini-playlists, free downloads and videos. Day one is a good introduction. It begins with a free download of High Road Home, an ambiguous and troubled workingman’s anthem (Stamm has a LOT of those). There’s more than a hint of Sam Llanas soul in the vocals, in this live duo version with low-key, purposeful acoustic lead player David Glover.

There’s also a duo version of the grimly aphoristic Crow Creek in the original A major key – which actually turns out better than the minor-key version Stamm recorded in the studio. But the centerpiece is Blame It on the Dog. It’s insanely funny and it has a trick ending. Without giving too much away, the dog is not always to blame for what’s going on here.

Later on during the “adventure” he celebrates “Busch Lights and a purple haze” – yikes – over a slow soul sway in a full band version of Bottle You Up, a salute to daydrinking. It’s also Stamm’s opportunity to pitch his line of suggestive beer-related t-shirts and such.

A little further into the “adventure” he completely flips the script with Ring of Roses, a folksy, John Prine-ish number inspired by a guy who was in hospice care, but that didn’t stop him from planning his next construction project. For freedom-loving people in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, Stamm’s next gig is on Oct 10 at 10 PM at Bigs Bar at 3110 W. 12th St.

You may be wondering why on earth a New York music blog would be paying so much attention to shows in such a faraway place as South Dakota. There are actually many reasons why, which you should think about, and one of them is that there are there’s more going on musically in South Dakota than there is in New York City right now – at least as far as publicly advertised shows are concerned. And if that’s not cause for concern, somebody’s asleep at the wheel. 

Hilarious Video Makes Fun of Lockdown-Era Paranoia

One of the funniest videos to come over the transom here in recent weeks is Media Bear’s I Wear My Face Mask in the Car. Lately youtube has been taking down pro-freedom videos, but this one’s still up there.

This LMFAO parody of masker behavior has new lyrics set to the tune of the cheesy 80s pop hit I Wear My Sunglasses At Night. The funniest part of the video starts with the shaving scene at about 3:05, and it gets even better from there. No spoilers!

Some Sobering Context For Tredici Bacci’s Latest Funny Video

Tredici Bacci make very funny videos. But the best joke in the lavish, cinematic band’s latest one, Defino De Venezia, is musical rather than visual. It starts at about 1:58 – but it won’t be as funny if you don’t watch from the beginning

What’s most amazing about it is that all seventeen people who play on it recorded their parts while sequestered – via Zoom, most likely. This is a case study in how video connections enable musicmaking, but also how they imperil it. On one hand, getting seventeen people in seventeen different places to sound anything like a cohesive unit is quite the feat. Bandleader Simon Hanes obviously went deep into his address book for the talent to pull this off (musician credits are listed below the video).

Let’s also give props to mixing engineer Myles Boisen for whatever mojo he was able to work to tighten everything up.

And that right there is the problem. You can’t fault anybody involved with the project, really. It’s just that Tredici Bacci are a funny band. Onstage they tend to be loose and spontaneous, and they can swing like hell. And that kind of magic, which really defines them, is missing here. Everybody seems so fixated on getting their parts right that there’s literally no chemistry. Which testifies to the limits of this kind of technology.

Obviously, anybody can take a stab at improvising over a video connection. But the camaraderie that enables a good jam can never be there. Not to be a killjoy, but ultimately this only underscores the undeniable truth that virtual reality can never be more than a pale imitation of the real thing, good jokes or not. And it’s frustrating to have to wait for the day when all this madness is over and we can see Tredici Bacci play live, for real, and not from six feet away. Ok, six feet away from the band, for sure, but not from each other.

Holiday Irreverence

On a macro level, holidays are always a good thing. In an era where workers’ rights are under fire more than at any time since the Industrial Revolution, anything that stands in the way of the bosses’ sense of entitlement is worth celebrating.

On the other hand, we in the west have become estranged from the winter solstice and harvest festival best remembered by the latin name Saturnalia. With all the religious associations weighing it down over the centuries, year-end holiday music has become a vomitorium of cheese and schmaltz. It’s time to take our holidays back! Here’s a handful of irreverent sonic treats to inspire you.

Jewish a-cappella group Six13 have a couple of seasonal tunes that deserve to be sung while the dreydl spins. A Star Wars Chanukah has some familiar lyrics set to the tune of John Williams’ Star Wars theme: the video, and the costumes, are the funniest part. Bohemian Chanukah – an update on Bohemian Rhapsody – is just plain LMFAO hilarious. The jokes are too good to give away, but it’s the one about the shonde known as baked latkes that might be the best of the batch. And as much as these guys are a comedy act, they’re actually fine singers.

On the Christmas side, the UK’s most prolific psychedelic punk weirdos, the Pocket Gods have a brand-new album, Rock N Rollin’ Fornicating Xmas streaming at Spotify. Frontman Mark Christopher Lee can’t keep a straight face throughout a punk rock Silent Night. There’s also a phony country song about getting fast food takeout with Jesus; a Ramonesy dis dedicated to Boris Johnson; a number about Christmas masturbation; and a sludgy, Black Angels-esque dirge, I Killed My Parents on Christmas Day. If December 25 bums you out, this will make your day a bit more tolerable.

A Slyly Cinematic Instrumental Album and a Rockwood Residency From Henry Hey

Multi-instrumentalist Henry Hey may be best know these days for his David Bowie collaborations,  notably as musical director for the stage productions of Lazarus, but he somehow finds the time to lead his own band. The latest album, simply titled Four, by his Forq quartet with guitarist Chris McQueen, bassist Kevin Scott and drummer Jason Thomas is streaming at Bandcamp. It’s their most colorful and cinematic release yet. Hey has a weekly 9 PM Monday night residency this month, with special guests at each show, at the small room at the Rockwood, where he’ll be next on Nov 11 and you can expect to hear at least some of this live.

The album’s first track is Mr. Bort. a ridiculously woozy Bernie Worrell/P-Funk style strut employing a slew of cheesy late 70s/early 80s keyboard patches – it sounds like a parody. The second track, Grifter is an epic  – it shifts from a techy update on early 60s samba-surf, to slit-eyed Hollywood hills boudoir soul, Tredici Bacci retro Italian cinematics and finally a noir conversation between twelve-string guitar and synth.

M-Theory is sternly swooshy outer space drama in an early 80s ELO vein, followed by Duck People, a return to wry portamento stoner funk with a jovially machinegunning faux-harpsichord solo out. Lullabye, the album’s most expansive track, has loopy faux-soukous followed by Hey playing postbop synth over a long drum crescendo, then a startrooper theme and a bit of second-line New Orleans.

Likewise, Tiny Soul morphs into and out of hard funk from a chipper, Jim Duffy-style psychedelic pop stroll. The band go back to brightly circling, buoyantly orchestrated Afro-pop with Rally, then bring back the wah funk with EAV.

After a brief, warpy reprise from Lullabye, the band channel Rick James with the catchy Times Like These. The last track is Whelmed, a funny riff-rock spoof: imagine what Avi Fox-Rosen would have done with it if he was a weedhead. Somewhere there is a hip-hop group, a video game franchise, an action flick or stoner buddy comedy that could use pretty much everything on this record.

Fun (or not so fun) fact: Hey takes the B.B. King memorial ironman award here for most macho performance while injured. Two sets of jazz at the piano with a broken thumb, lots of solos and not a single grimace. Can’t tell you where or with who because the injury could have been costlhy if anybody had known at the time.

A Profoundly Entertaining, Interactive Night of Operatic Fun at the Edge of Chinatown

At his sold-out show last night to close a weekend of performances at the Abrons Arts Center, countertenor Ju-eh hit high notes that were as disconcerting as they were spectacular. It was a profound and often profoundly funny display of awe-inspiring technique matched with witty banter and deep insight into the relationship between audience and performer. In an era where more and more, the act onstage becomes a mere backdrop for social media posturing by wannabes in the crowd, Ju-eh’s generous interaction with the audience had unusual resonance.

He made his entrance from the side of the stage with a soaring aria by Handel over a solo organ recording. Seated centerstage, his verbal sparring partner Hwarg worked a series of mixers and laptop. Although Ju-eh was wearing a skirt, he revealed in a lengthy Q&A after the show that he didn’t choose that to be genderqueer: rather, it was a historical reference to an era when pretty much everyone wore the same robe, or the same daishiki. The rest of the outfit – plain white shirt and blue thermal socks, his hair knotted with a stick – mirrored his background as a Chinese-born New York avant garde artist who’s built a career singing western opera.

He and his collaborator call this piece Living Dying Opera: he lives to sing it, but it’s also killing him sometimes. Self-doubt quickly became a persistent theme, most poignantly portrayed via a plaintive John Dowland version of an old English air. Ju-eh’s voice reached for the rafters with an imploring wail as he crouched in the corner in the darkness, holding a simple lamp, Diogenes-style. On one hand, it’s reassuring to know that someone with such prodigious talent can also be self-critical; on the other, if this guy isn’t satisfied with his achievements, how about us mere mortals?

After the show, he explained that he always wants audiences at his performances to feel loved. That assessment in many respects makes a lot of sense, in that a lot of people go to a performance to transcend, to see themselves in the music or the narrative and come out on the other side to a better place. What he didn’t address is that audiences all too often have other, similarly self-involved reasons for going out. Whether watching something on Facebook Live and texting all your ‘friends” about it confers the same status as taking a selfie at the actual show, with the performer somewhere in the background, is open to debate.

But even with all that talent and that resume, Ju-eh remains a fish out of water, even in the rarefied world of countertenors. He explained that most operatic roles written for men singing in a soprano’s range are antagonists: they’re supposed to sound evil. Ju-eh’s voice, and his style, don’t fit that mold: they’re especially robust, an endless, thick rope ladder reaching into the clouds, with a muscular vibrato to match. Although he’s working in a range usually limited to women, he doesn’t hear his own voice as female, and he shouldn’t: it’s uniquely his.

There were a lot of very amusing, sometimes coy, sometimes disarmingly down-to-earth extemporaneous moments where he and Hwarg discussed how well, or not so well, the show was progressing. There were also points where he took crowd members and put them centerstage, then continued singing from their seats. The most haunting of those moments was when he delivered a stark, aching verse and chorus of Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child from the front row.

The after-show Q&A kept the audience as engaged as the performance itself did. The funniest revelation was that Ju-eh had come up with a brief interlude where he lay on the floor in order to give himself a breather rather than to add any kind of meaning. The man he’d pulled from the crowd to stand onstage – as “Mr. Mango” – confided that he’d encouraged Ju-eh to pick him because he wanted to find out if the other audience members had also been chosen randomly, or if they were shills. Over and over again, Ju-eh’s most existential questions of identity resonated more profoundly than anything else in this provocative encounter sponsored by the New York Chinese Culture Salon.