The thirty women of Conspiracy of Venus comprise one of the world’s most original and captivating choral groups. They’re sister to mighty all-male Leonard Cohen chorale A Conspiracy of Beards, specializing in ethereal, labyrinthine-voiced versions of rock and Americana songs. Their richly imaginative, innovative debut album – streaming at Bandcamp – is wryly titled Muse Ecology (say it fast if you don’t get it the first time around). They’re the centerpiece of the one of the year’s best triplebills, on May 21 at around 10 at the Jalopy. Two of the most unpredictably fun singers in newschool oldtime Americana, resonator guitarist/songwriter Mamie Minch and Brain Cloud frontwoman Tamar Korn open the night at 9, then fiery and often devastatingly funny klezmer punk band Golem – who are sort of the Jewish Gogol Bordello – headline at around 11. Cover is $10. In case you can’t make it to the magical Jalopy, Conspiracy of Venus are also at the big room at the Rockwood on May 20 at 7 for $10, then on the 22nd they’re at Highline Ballroom at noon for $12 in advance.
The album’s opening track, Wildwood, by the group’s director Joyce Todd McBride, begins as a stately, almost marching piece backed by bossa-tinged acoustic guitar. It’s probably the most lushly arranged folk-pop song ever recorded, its artful counterpoint expanding as the song goes on. You could call it a choral counterpart to what Sara McDonald is doing with big band jazz arrangements. Backed by minimal vibraphone and percussion, they make gentle but potent antique gospel out of Tom Waits’ Jockey Full of Bourbon. Once again, the counterpoint gets more intricate as the song goes along, low individual voices alternating below the pillowy highs. It’s all the creepier for being so low-key, like the Swingle Singers doing Procol Harum.
Bowie’s Life on Mars gets a lithely pointillistic treatment that follows the lyrics’ surrealistic tangent up to a sweeping peak. Cohen’s Dance Me to the End of Love follows an artful arrangement from a balletesque pulse, to swing, then echoes of country gospel. Joni Mitchell’s Big Yellow Taxi has bass and drums anchoring a buoyantly sweet, charmingly swinging chart that plays up the lyrics’ crushing sarcasm. Later on they put an enigmatically intense, tropically-infused spin on another Joni number, Black Crow. The album’s most raptly renaissance-tinged track is McBride’s setting of Berthold Brecht’s The Buddha’s Parable of the Burning House.
Another McBride tune, In the Bud reverts to the opening track’s airy bossa-pop. Then the group makes lavish polyphony out of Iris DeMent’s lilting Appalachian-flavored Let the Mystery Be. As you might guess, the most playfully avant garde-flavored number is Bjork’s coy Possibly Maybe, shifting almost imperceptibly into an oldschool soul groove. They go back to the Cohen book for an irresistibly dancing, surreal, fun version of I’m Your Man and then wind it all up with a similarly funny reggae version of Bjork’s Venus As a Boy. What a blissfully entertaining album!