New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: crime jazz

Big Lazy Bring Their Sinister, Slinky Noir Grooves Back to Barbes

Noir instrumental trio Big Lazy‘s two sold-out album release shows at the American Can Company building in Gowanus late last year were completely different. For a group whose usual sonic palette is a magically detailed but typically grim greyscale, that was unexpected – and obviously influenced by some devastatingly sad circumstances.

Frontman/guitarist Steve Ulrich had lost his mom the previous night. Only a few hours before the first show, he’d played Cole Porter’s I Love You to her at her bedside – and the group, who typically don’t play many covers, reprised that with a gently starry, expansive instrumental take featuring Sexmob’s Steven Bernstein on trumpet. As far as emotional ironman performances go, this was right up there with Exene Cervenka’s gig the night her sister was killed in a car crash. Word spread throughout the venue; nobody knew how to react. Yet the pall over the space lifted as the band went on and played two long sets, the crowd hanging on every creepy chromatic and wry bent note. If there ever was proof of love being stronger than death, this was it.

The second night’s two sets were more boisterous. The Onliest, the desolately loping theme that opens the band’s latest album Dear Trouble, was especially dusky and spare the first time, but the group gave it a more sinisterly windswept take the second time around. There were unexpected treats from deep in the band’s catalog: the hammering Human Sacrifice, like Link Wray doing the Mission Impossible theme, on night two, and the gleefully macabre Skinless Boneless on night one. Bassist Andrew Hall and drummer Yuval Lion also dug in and cut loose more, the former finally indulging the crowd with a slap-happy rockabilly solo late Saturday night during a full-throttle, rat-a-tat take of Princess Nicotine.

The special guests fit seamlessly with the music: it was as if they were a regular part of the band. Miramar organist Marlysse Rose Simmons, with her funereal tremolo and murderously slinky riffs, completely gets this music. Baritone saxophonist Peter Hess, of Slavic Soul Party, added extra smoke on the low end. Bernstein provided disquieting animation on the highs, particularly when he picked up his slide trumpet for all sorts of bloody slashes and smears. And the guitar interplay between Ulrich and Marc Ribot, particularly on Ramona, a brooding quasi-bolero, had an especially bittersweet, saturnine depth.

Big Lazy return to their monthly Barbes residency this Friday, Jan 24 at 10 PM on the year’s best twinbill so far: ageless. Rapturous Armenian jazz multi-reedman Souren Baronian and his amazing band with Adam Good on oud open the night at 8. If you’re on the fence, you should know that this will be Big Lazy’s last Barbes gig for a couple of months. Although they’ve been playing around town more lately, they’re at their peak at what has been their home turf for the last six years.

A Riveting, Exhilaratingly Dark Lincoln Center Album Release Show by Brian Carpenter’s Ghost Train Orchestra

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 earlier this week. In a sense, the record brings the former Beat Circus leader full circle with his noir roots, in the process rescuing all kinds of eerie, genre-shattering 1930s and 40s tunes from obscurity.

From the first uneasy, enigmatic solo of the night – from alto saxophonist Andy Laster – to the last one, a furtively expansive one from tenor player Ben Kono – this mighty seventeen-piece edition of the band were obviously jumping out of their shoes to be playing this material. Since before the group’s wildly popular 2013 Book of Rhapsodies album, trumpeter/conductor Carpenter has dedicated himself to resurrecting the work of little-known carnivalesque composers, most notably Reginald Foresythe, a British pianist who was more than a half-century ahead of his time.

Recast in Carpenter’s new arrangement, one of that composer’s numbers sounded like a beefed-up swing version of a noir surf number by Beninghove’s Hangmen. A serpentine, bolero-tinged tune again evoked that current-day cinematic band, drummer Rob Garcia having fun rattling the traps in tandem with the moody low-end pulse of bassist Michael Bates and tuba player Ron Caswell.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, guitarist Avi Bortnick added the occasional marionettish ping or pop to goose the music when it threatened to go completely dark. The rest of the band – Curtis Hasselbring on trombone, Dennis Lichtman  on clarinet, Mazz Swift on violin, and Emily Bookwalter on viola – were bolstered by a six-piece choir including but not limited to the soaring Aubrey Johnson and Tammy Scheffer. The extra voices added deviously incisive counterpoint on all ends of the spectrum as well.

There were two swinged-out arrangements of Chopin pieces, the second an impromptu, which featured the night’s most sizzling solo, a lickety-split series of harmonically-spiced cascaces from Swift. She’d reprise that with a little more brevity during an epic take of Raymond Scott’s Celebration on the Planet Mars, along with similarly punchy solos from Hasselbring, Kono, Laster, Garcia and Caswell. A couple of romping, swinging, sometimes vaudevillian and occasionally cartoonish Alec Wilder tunes gave the band something approximating comic relief. Watch this space for a more in-depth look at the amazing new album.

Big Lazy Bring Their Noir Intensity to the East Village This Friday Night

Even by their own legendary standards, Big Lazy’s show Friday night at Barbes was a high point in the history of a band who go back twenty years. Having seen the cinematic noir instrumental trio in various configurations since the 90s, this could have been their most improvisational show ever. Their music is often described as crime jazz, but they also play noir boleros, and go-go struts, and uneasy big-sky themes that turn macabre in seconds flat. Those are just a handful of styles they’ve played over the years. In between songs, frontman/guitarist Steve Ulrich alluded to surf music, which makes sense considering how much reverb he uses. But ironically, there were more latin rhythms and pouncing suspense themes in this set than there was the horror surf which was one of the band’s signature sounds during the early days.  Since Ulrich’s main gig is writing scores for film and PBS, that’s no surprise.

The guy can play anything. Bill Frisell and Marc Ribot get all the props for being this era’s preeminent jazz guitarists, but Ulrich can do anything they do, just more darkly. There was a lot of new material in this set, and as Ulrich cut loose with lingering, mournful approximations of wee-hours horn lines, bottom-of-the-well echoes, plaintive country twang or elegant proto-rockabilly Nashville riffs, creating a constantly shifting tableau that was as close to straight-up postbop jazz as this band’s ever played.

Amplifying that was how nimbly bassist Andrew Hall and drummer Yuval Lion negotiatid the songs’ tricky syncopation and odd meters. Hall is the one bass player in this group to actually carry the melody from time to time,  with a lot of conversational interplay, but this show was more or less Ulrich out alone over a taut, slinky backdrop, flying without a net. One common device that came back again and again with a wallop was how he’d answer his own semi-hopeful, soaring phrases with a crushing barrage of tremolo-picking,  akin to what Rachmaninoff would do.

Ulrich usually saves that kind of unhinged attack for when he really needs it – he leaves the pick-melting to Dick Dale. But this time the angst and fury was relentless, through expansive and careening versions of the lickety-split Princess Nicotine, a gloomily gorgeous take of Uneasy Street and finally a warped version of Don’t Cross Myrtle. That’s the title track of the band’s latest album, and while New Yorkers might think it means “stay out of the bad part of town,” it could just as easily mean “keep your hideous condos and money laundering out of what’s left of our cool neighborhood.”

Big Lazy pick up where they left off this Friday night, Nov 10 at Drom at around 9 PM on one of the year’s best triplebills, which opens with wild, theatrical, female-fronted Chicago barrelhouse piano blues band the Claudettes, and trumpeter Brian Carpenter and the Confessions – the dark oldtime jazz maven’s Lynchian rock band. Showtime is 7 PM; $12 adv tix are highly recommended.

Big Lazy at the Peak of Their Darkly Cinematic Power in Brooklyn This Saturday Night

Friday night at Barbes the room was packed and the girls in the front row were dancing up a storm through two slinky sets by Big Lazy. Less than 24 hours later, seeing Los Straitjackets – a similarly twangy, virtuosic guitar instrumental band who go far deeper into the surf than Big Lazy but are nowhere near as picturesque – raised the question of how many other bands are actually better now than they were twenty years ago.

The New York Philharmonic, maybe?

Big Lazy had already earned iconic status in noir music circles before the end of the 90s, and continued that streak with a reverb-drenched series of albums that combined elements of crime jazz, macabre boleros, Bernard Herrmann Hitchcock themes, horror surf, ghoulabilly and bittersweet big-sky tableaux. But this current edition of the band is their classic lineup. If you were around when they were playing Friday nights at midnight at Tonic during the early to mid-zeros, and you haven’t seen the band since, you’re missing out  on the best part of their career.And you have a rare chance to see a very intimate show when they play this August 12 at 8:30 PM at Bar Lunatico in Bed-Stuy.

Drummer Yuval Lion can be combustible, but Friday night he was in misterioso mode. These guys haven’t had someone so colorful, who can build suspense with every part of the kit as subtly as this guy does, since Willie Martinez left the original lineup when his latin music career got in the way. Bassist Andrew Hall co-founded the Moonlighters and plays with western swing band Brain Cloud, so he swings, hard. And he’s also the funniest bass player this band’s had. He’ll sometimes fake a charge into the crowd, or do a wry faux-rockabilly slap thing, and he likes glissandos and swoops and dives. He always seems to be at the center of the eye-rolling “gotcha” moments.

Guitarist/bandleader Steve Ulrich can also be hilarious, notwithstanding how bleak most of the band’s music can be. But they never play the same thing remotely the same way twice. This time out the recurrent, unexpecr\ted quotes he’d randomly slip in were from My Funny Valentine and It’s My Party and I’ll Cry If I Want To. A couple of months before, it was Mission Impossible. And just when it seemed he’d go off on a couple of long, savage scenery-chewing chord-chopping interludes, he stopped both cold, in midstream: he spars with the crowd as much as he does with his bandmates.

This was one of the band’s best setlists ever: top ten, by this blog’s standards, and this blog and Big Lazy go back to the very beginning. The lingering chromatics and morose washes were balanced by a droll go-go strut, lickety-split artful-dodger escapades and matter-of-factly perambulating but increasingly grey western sky pastorales. As much jagged menace as they brought to Skinless Boneless, one of their signature songs, the two best songs in the evening’s two full sets were both brand new. The first was awash in distant longing and echoes of sad Orbison noir pop, the second a bloodstained bolero and a platform for both some nimbly creepy tumbles from Lion, and sniper-in-the-shadows fire from Ulrich. Because the Bar Lunatico gig is happening so fresh on the heels of this one, you’re likely to hear all this and more this Saturday night.

Beninghove’s Hangmen Release Their Most Savagely Cinematic Noir Instrumental Album

In the jazz world, Bryan Beninghove is known as a monster tenor and soprano saxophonist and a connoisseur of Romany swing. But he’s also one of this era’s great film composers. His most interesting project may be his noir instrumental band, Beninghove’s Hangmen. Their previous two original albums both ranked in the top five of the year here; their new one, Pineapples and Ashtrays – streaming at Bandcamp – is their most eclectic, twistedly picturesque and definitely their funniest. Much as Beninghove’s creepy riffage and rainswept themes make him one of the small handful of film score writers who deserve mention alongside Angelo Badalamenti, he also has a snide, deviously erudite sense of humor and that’s front and center here. The band are playing the album release show on May 26 at around 10 at the Citizen, 332 2nd St. in Jersey City, about six blocks from the Grove St. Path station.

The album opens with Astronete, arguably the most sarcastic cha-cha ever written. Beninghove distinguishes himself with a faux-bubbly Rhodes piano solo, treble turned up to the point of distortion; guitarist Dane Johnson takes it out with some gritty metallic blues.

On one hand, the title track is your basic musical dialectic: bad cop vs. good cop, Jason stalking his unsuspecting prey. On the other, it gives you pause: the band hold their sarcasm close enough in check, and dive into the menace with so much relish, that they just might be serious after all. It starts off as a menacingly altered bolero, then the scenes shift through a balmy ranchera, cornpone C&W and a twinkling Hawaiian tableau. Meanwhile, the bolero theme winds up, then winds down, Rick Parker’s looming trombone and Johnson’s clenched-teeth monster surf guitar front and center.

Lola Gotta Gun is a very clever, Lynchian dub reggae mashup of Lola and Happiness Is a Warm Gun. La Girafe is a showcase for Beninghove’s subtle side, which is ironic considering how over-the-top cartoonish this loping, happy-go-lucky theme is. The best joke is cruel, it’s in French and it’s too good to give away here

Roebuck – a shout-out to the Staples Singers’ patriarch Roebuck Staples – opens as a simmering, misterioso Quincy Jones summer night theme and builds to a methodical but very uneasy sway on the wings of Johnson’s dark blues lines and Beninghove’s shivery red-neon tenor work. The careening, self-explanatory Elephant Stampede echoes the band’s expertly buffoonish Zohove album, a collection of instrumental Led Zep covers.

The lone cover here is a pretty icky Neil Diamond ditty that other bands have tried to make noir out of. It’s not up to the level of Beninghove’s originals, although it does bring to mind a teenage, trenchcoated Diamond lingering outside the girls’ yeshiva somewhere in Midwood, staring at a nine-year-old and thinking to himself, girl, you’ll be a woman soon enough. The album winds up with Terminator, which sounds like Nine Inch Nails taking a stab at a New Orleans second-line groove, as funny as it is ugly. Much as we’re still in April, there’s no way anybody’s going to release a more cinematically entertaining album than this in 2016.

Last night, it was viscerally painful to walk out on the band as they launched into the lickety-split monster surf of H-Bomb, considering how expertly feral their set had been up to that point. Has the leader of any band ever to play Otto’s Shrunken Head ever instructed his players to pay attention to volume and dynamics? Beninghove did, and the crew – this time including bass powerhouse Ezra Gale, guitarist Sean Kiely and drummer Sean Baltazor – delivered, through a scorchingly psychedelic set including ferociously expansive takes of macabre, chromatically-charged surf classics like Surf ‘n Turk and Surfin’ Satie as well as a trippy version of Lola Gotta Gun and an amped-up roadhouse blues-infused Roebuck.

Film Noir Instrumentalists Big Lazy and Italian Singer Julia Patinella Haunt the Crowd at Barbes

As the story goes, Julia Patinella‘s first live appearance at Barbes lasted for about two bars.worth of music “But what two bars!” said Big Lazy frontman/guitarist Steve Ulrich, as he introduced the singer early in the band’s set there last month. The two first met in the wee hours there. She’d done what a lot of musicians do when it’s past midnight and the bands are finished: she broke out her guitar and took a stab at entertaining her friends with a couple of Italian folk songs, completely unplugged.

Uh uh. Like a lot of venues, Barbes has a strict curfew on music, and they enforce it. But unlike the bartender who did the enforcing, Ulrich was entranced. Being a devotee of Italian music and heavily influenced by both Nino Rota and Ennio Morricone, Ulrich asked Patinella if she’d sing with the band. The result turned out to be a couple of hauntingly affecting, nocturnally lilting numbers, the first with Romany tinges, the second a playful commentary on how women deserve just as much fun in the sack as guys do, complete with sardonically low-key orgasmic vocalese. And as comfortable as she was with this material, maybe considering her Sicilian heritage, this was something of a departure for her since she’s focused mostly on flamenco lately. Years from now, when Patinella is playing big stages around the globe, she can tell the world that she was discovered by Big Lazy.

For their part, the iconic noir instrumental trio hung back with a moody jangle to match Patinella’s nuance. Their own material was just as dynamic, and considerably darker, as you would expect from this creepy crew. Their show on New Year’s Day here featured a lot of highway themes and big-sky ambience: this set was a particularly murderous one. Bassist Andrew Hall used his bow more than usual, painting pitchblend swaths underneath Ulrich’s lurid chromatics, lingering blues phrases drenched in reverb, and the occasional savage flurry of tremolo-picking. It’s a mystery how this guy manages not to break strings.

Mystery was the theme for the rest of the show, part horror surf, part crime jazz, part shapeshifting cinematic sweep. Drummer Yuval Lion seemed more amped than usual as the band stabbed and pulsed through a cover of Piazzolla’s Pulsacion #5, then later the surrealistic sprint Princess Nicotine – a new theme for an old silent short from the 20s. Otherwise, the menace was relentless, through the slinky shadows of Don’t Cross Myrtle, Swampesque and one of the creepiest songs of the night, Influenza, which Ulrich wryly pondered about renaming. If dark sounds are your thing, Big Lazy are your band. Their monthly Friday night Barbes residency continues this Friday, March 4 at 10. T’hey’re also at Manhattan Inn in Greenpoint on March 14 at around 9 on what might be the years’s best twinbill, with similarly macabre, surfy, shapeshifting soundtrack instrumentalists Beninghove’s Hangmen.

Crime Jazz Themes for Running from the Law

[based on true events – details have been altered to protect the innocent]

It’s six in the morning, New Year’s Day, still dark, as the man in the long black coat looks across the park and sets a vector. He moves briskly, purposefully, but not quite in a straight line. Having walked this far after the previous night’s festivities finally broke up, the long way around the perimeter is not an option, even though the grounds are still legally closed til sunrise.

He never would have done this as a child. Even now, in this supposedly safe, yuppified, whitewashed city, if there’s one place to get mugged after a New Year’s Eve party, this is it. The man makes a fast, deliberate if less than steady path through grass and stands of maple. If there’s anyone else in the park at this hour, they aren’t making their presence known.

Right where the trees end and the lawn begins, about a hundred feet from the exit, the man sees the police in the 4X4 almost at the second that they see him. If he had been sober, he would have maintained a steady pace. But he flinches, and as he recovers from that split-second hesitation, the lights atop the 4X4 begin to flash and it slowly begins to advance. Without looking back, the man breaks into a sprint as the light ricochets off the remaining trees and the wall just past the park. There most likely won’t be any trains at this hour, but it he can make it out and down into the adjacent subway station, at the very least he can elude capture.

With a leap, he makes it over a low wire fence and keeps going. In the predawn silence, the muted engine and crackle of tires over soft, rocky ground are audible. When he reaches a second fence, barely twenty feet from the street, he’s watching the refraction of the lights closing in behind him. Weighed down just enough from the four-pack of Polish beer in his backpack – something he won’t discover until later – his foot catches the top of the fence and he goes down, twisting his knee as he lands, awkwardly.

The impact keeps him going, skidding across the grass. Scrambling to his feet, pushing himself upright with his hands and his other knee, he accelerates just as the jeep does, slows for a second, wincing and then resuming his pace as the subway stairs beckon. He descends rapidly, watching his feet this time, just as the cop car and its two occupants reach the exit and then pull to a stop.

Down in the subway, the token booth is closed. The man hesitates for a second, then reaches in his pocket for his subway card, quickly swipes it and pushes through the turnstile, wincing again. Briskly, but with a noticeable limp, he moves down the platform and pulls in close behind a pillar near the other exit. In a worst-case scenario, he can leave the station almost as fast as he came in. He wraps his coat tightly around his legs and leans against the pillar, motionless.

Upstairs, the officer behind the wheel of the 4X4 glances out, then gives a quizzical look to his partner in the adjacent seat. The other officer shrugs, takes a deep breath. “Nah,” he laughs. The driver smiles, pushes the gearshift up into reverse, and backs the car slowly into the park. The man in the long black coat isn’t the only person in the area who’s been partying.

About fourteen hours later, the man in the long black coat walks gingerly down Ninth Street as the sidewalk slopes south from Seventh Avenue. Cautiously, he uses his good knee to make the pivot as he reaches Barbes, pushes the door open and then slowly moves through the crowd, past the front bar.

The tall blonde bartendress in the back room greets him with a smile. She brings him a seltzer. They assess each others’ consumption the previous evening. Him: three bottles of wine, then beer when the wine ran out. Her: a whole bottle of vodka. They gaze at each other in muted appreciation, a mutual sense of pride in being back on their feet, more or less, so soon. “I’m not drinking tonight, either,” she confides.

It’s a Friday night, and for a New Year’s Day, the crowd is lively and all the seats are filled. In the front of the room, Big Lazy – guitarist Steve Ulrich, bassist Andrew Hall and drummer Yuval Lion – make their final adjustments. The man in the long black coat slumps back against the room’s rear window ledge. A striking, statuesque brunette turns toward the back of the room; they see each other and embrace, his head against the waves of hair on her lustrous porcelain skin. She’s taller than he is. “What’d you do to yourself?”she asks,

“Running from the cops,” he says dryly, shifting his weight to the healthy knee. “Don’t worry, I didn’t hurt anybody.”

The brunette rolls her eyes. A man walks into the room and extends a glass of Maker’s Mark, neat. The man in the long black coat eyes it warily, then takes the glass, a tentative sip and then a slug. He leans back against the ledge, more relaxed now. This could be another long night.

Big Lazy begin their set building lingering, creepy chromatics around a spare blues riff. The man in the long black coat whispers something in the brunette’s ear. She cups her hand to his and whispers back, her dark eyes sparkling. She’s one of the world’s great blues players, and it resonates with her, as it does with the man in the long black coat – who is not, although he has some experience in that department.

The band makes echoey, uneasy, slowly swaying surf rock out of a bossa tune.They strut with an especially tongue-in-cheek energy through a big-sky theme that may or may not relate to the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. Lion is hitting harder than usual in this room; Hall, for his part, is dancing and slinking, then plays deep-space bowed lines against Ulrich’s switchblade staccato on an Astor Piazzolla song. Later they do a murky take on the early Beatles, with a nod to the Ventures.

Ulrich has his reverb turned way up, as usual. As a rule, he doesn’t play a lot of notes, and this set is especially terse. He tells some funny stories: the night’s most breathless sprint turns out to be an imaginary soundtrack for a 1920s surrealist short film; the creepiest number, Skinless Boneless, was inspired by the message board outside a 1990s Bronx Burger King.

One of the last numbers they play is a surprisingly lighthearted 60s go-go theme: Ulrich tells the crowd that it’s a new one titled Sizzle and Pops, named after an imaginary husband-and-wife bar and grill. It’s a funny way to end a night of crime jazz themes after a run from the law.

Big Lazy return to Barbes at 10 PM on Friday, February 5. You never know who will be there. If you see a NYPD 4X4, don’t flinch and just keep walking.

Ben Von Wildenhaus Brings His Gorgeously Entrancing, Lynchian Guitar Back to Brooklyn

Guitarist Ben Von Wildenhaus is a connoiseur of noir. He’s also one of the best loopmusic performers around. Loopmusic is as brutally difficult to play live as it is easy to record: you lay down a phrase, preferably a simple, catchy one that you can harmonize with, and then play over it, again and again. Onstage, if you miss a beat, you’re screwed, but Von Wildenhaus has done this to the point that he has it in his fingers. His new album II is streaming at Soundcloud, and available on delicious vinyl. He’s also got a show coming up at Troost in Greenpoint on July 9 at 9 PM accompanied by a diversely talented cast: vocalists Clara Kennedy and Scott Matthew, resonator guitarist Zeke Healey and violist Karen Waltuch.

The album’s opening track, Bad Lament is basically variations on the Twin Peaks theme with boomy drums, a balmy bocal choir, tersely suspenseful Rhodes piano, spiky twelve-string guitar. Hard to argue with a classic riff and what a talented cast can do with it…but not crediting Angelo Badalamenti’s original is a crime. The originals start, essentially with the first part of The Knife Thrower, a fast, shuffing, surfy take on a noir bolero, veering between tremoloing Lynchian twang and surfy staccato phrases, a smudgy loop taking the place of the drums.

From the title, you might think that Al Azif would be a Middle Eastern theme, but instead it veers from a Frisellian pastoral soundscape into eerie, more ambient shadows, an attempt to evoke a creepy, H.P. Lovecraft insectile atmospherics. For whatever reason, the next track, Bad Motherfucker is a slinky Egyptian snakecharmer theme punctuated with tersely spiky layers of guitar and Rhodes electric piano. Then Kennedy sings the torchy, slowly swaying, ominously crescendoing ballad Tú in Spanish, up to a smoky baritone sax solo over shivery, reverberating Rhodes electric piano and guitar.

Side two of the album opens with Bad Lament II, a less thinly disguised version of that iconic theme, veering toward more skronky terrain: think Tonic, 2006. The second version of The Knife Thrower slows it down to a simmering, halfspeed intensity, a white-knuckle tension between the echoey Rhodes and lingering, twangy guitar building a Morricone-esque southwestern gothic tableau.

An Nur follows a stern, woundedly stark upward trajectory over an almost imperceptibly pulsing backdrop: it’s arguably the catchiest track here. Easy Opium, arguably the album’s strongest and most anthemic cut, pairs elegant Rhodes bolero-psych riffage against Ethopian-flavored violin, with a jagged sax/guitar conversation on the way out. The album winds up with Two, an anguished ballad, like Botanica lost in the desert and the only track with actual lyrics. One of the most cinematic and consistently interesting albums to come out so far this year, it’s something you could put on loop and discover something new in every time – maybe something about the music, maybe something about yourself, if you aren’t afraid to look in the mirror.

Big Lazy’s Don’t Cross Myrtle – Best Album of 2014

Film composer/guitarist Stephen Ulrich has been on some kind of roll lately. He scored the Academy Award-shortlisted documentary Art and Craft with characteristically vivid noir unease. His one-off album with his cinematic instrumental project Ulrich Ziegler, with ex-Pink Noise guitarist Itamar Ziegler, was rated best album of 2012 here. Most recently, Ulrich has regrouped his legendary noir instrumental trio Big Lazy, who set the bar as far as menacing reverbtone guitar cinematics are concerned. The title of their latest album, Don’t Cross Myrtle – streaming at Spotify – is a creepy deep-Brooklyn reference, and it’s apt. Pound for pound, it’s the best album of 2014.

Some backstory: the group broke up in 2007. Meanwhile, Ulrich continued on with a semi-rotating cast of characters including drummer Yuval Lion, who ended up sticking around for this project along with prominently ubiquitous bassist Andrew Hall, who’s never played with more stygian intensity than he does here. The new album covers all the desolate, shadowy, knifes-edge territory that previous incarnations of the band have evoked since their iconic 1996 debut, Amnesia, released under the name Lazy Boy (the reason for the name change is a sick and hilarious indictment of American corporate fascism). And this unit turns out to be the best version of the band, ever, surpassing even the slinky menace of Ulrich’s original trio with Paul Dugan on bass and Willie Martinez on drums.

The opening track, Minor Problem, is a a twisted tango, Ulrich tracing a sleaze-infested trail with his guitar and then his lapsteel over a misterioso clatter from Lion as Hall holds it all together. The slowly undulating Unswerving blends Charlie Giordano’s accordion into Ulrich’s spaciously eerie chromatics for a tinge of Peter Lorre-era musette. The Low Way opens as a jauntily swinging, Bill Frisell-esque highway theme, but Ulrich wastes no time edging it toward the shadows: it’s sort of the reverse image of Junction City, the one relatively easygoing track on the band’s debut.

Human Sacrifice makes horror surf out of a flamenco theme – with its savage clusters and sudden dips and swells, it’s one of the most suspenseful tracks here, and a real showstopper live. Black Sheep brings back the pastoral flavor with a muted, psychedelic sarcasm – Lion’s snorting barnyard flurries on the drums are irresistibly funny. Avenue X – another Brooklyn reference and a popular title in the horror surf demimonde – revisits the murky, dubby depths that Ulrich explored for awhile about ten years ago, with a snide, faux-blithe trumpet cameo from Sexmob‘s Steven Bernstein.

Night Must Fall motors along on an ominously sketchy ghoulabilly shuffle groove in the same vein as classic late 90s Big Lazy tracks like Princess Nicotine and Just Plain Scared, hitting a similarly explosive, jagged peak. The single best cut here is the funereal waltz Swampesque, Lion and Hall shadowing Ulrich’s alternately lingering and icepicking lines. Bring Me the Head of Lee Marvin pairs crime-scene guitar with guest Peter Hess’s brooding baritone sax over an almost imperceptibly shapeshifting groove.

The album’s title track is also its funniest, a ba-BUMP stripper theme that the band, and Bernstein again, fire poison darts at with considerable relish. Whereabouts takes a balmy jazz ballad deep into Twin Peaks territory; the album winds up with a bonus track, Lunch Lady, a narrative that turns on a dime from bouncy and bluesy to murderous. Throughout the album, Ulrich and the rhythm section pepper the shadowy cinematics with bits of black humor and the occasional devious quote – Hendrix, the Mission Impossible theme and allusions to Nino Rota’s Fellini soundtracks, a well that Ulrich has drawn deeply from over the years. Obviously, picking this album over similarly brilliant if stylistically unrelated releases by Jennifer Niceley, Robin Aigner, Paul Wallfisch’s Ministry of Wolves and Arborea (all of whom you may see on this page in the near future, hint hint) is completely subjective. It’s like choosing Sergeant Pepper over Are You Experienced in 1967, or Public Enemy over Sonic Youth in 1987. If you buy the idea that somebody has to make that call, this album makes it a no-brainer.

Best Halloween Show of 2013: Carol Lipnik, Villa Delirium, Big Lazy and Mamie Minch

Is there a style of music that John Kruth can’t play? On Halloween, he brought his witty, ghoulish circus-rock band Villa Delirium to Barbes on a triplebill that was as darkly entertaining as it promised to be. Vllla Delirium are as eclectic as Kruth’s other project, Tribecastan but more grounded in classic Americana than the Middle Eastern, Romany and Central Asian sounds that kitchen-sink instrumental unit explores. As the band name implies, there’s a gleefully dark humor to most of Villa Delirium’s songs. This time out, Kruth switched between mandolin, acoustic guitar and wood flute, alongside the band’s not-so-secret weapon, Tine Kindermann on vocals and singing saw, plus Kenny Margolis on accordion and multi-keys and Doug Wieselman on bass clarinet and mandolin.

Kruth kicked off the night with one of a handful of canivalesque waltzes, followed by the surreeal La Vie de Madame Tussaud, sung in French by Kindermann, with the first of several shivery, sepulchral saw solos. A little later on, she sang the Doors’ Crystal Ship in German, its creepy Weimar psychedelics enhanced by a minimoog solo where Margolis played through a choir patch, adding an uber-goth edge.

Kruth grinningly delivered a mash note to a flirtatious ghost who was hot in her time over Message to You Rudie riffage, followed by the first of a handful of pretty country waltzes, a klezmer-tinged tune and then Kindermann’s Russian/klezmer spoof Nyet Is All You’ll Ever Get. They went a little further west to the Balkans for a murderous tale about the Countess Bathory, who reputedly bathed in virgins’ blood as a medieval precursor to botox. Then they did their funniest song of the night, a droll waltz sung by Kruth that twisted the story of the pied piper into a cautionary tale about how you should never stiff a musician.

A wistful, Celtic-tinged accordion waltz evoked Rachelle Garniez; a little later, they got the audience singing along on the swinging blues tune Calling the Monster Back Home, then the barrelhouse Jerry Lee-style anthem Turning up the Burners in Satan’s Steakhouse with Margolis rocking the piano keys. They wound up their set with the psych-folk waltz What Is the Moon on Tonight: “What is the moon on, mescaline or blow, and where can I get some, I just wanna know,” Kruth deadpanned. He was so taken by Wieselman’s first spiky, rapidfire mandolin solo that he asked for another one and presumably got what he wanted; the crowd roared for more.

Probably because the music was so good, the amateurs didn’t show up until late in headliners Big Lazy‘s second set, and by then it was past midnight. By then, guitarist Steve Ulrich, Andrew Hall (first chair bassist of the Greenwich Village Orchestra) and drummer Yuval Lion had stalked their way through murderous back-alley crime jazz romps, a couple of western swing-tinged blue-sky themes, slasher skronk and a pitchblende lament or two. The most spine-tingling moment of the night was when Mamie Minch came up to join them for a Lynchian version of Crazy. Most women who cover the song sing it whimsically, or bittersweetly; Minch sang it as if it had happened to her and she was living the cruel aftermath, working her way up to the top of her register and then eventually taking a long slide down into her moody alto, adding the occasional, flickering, bluesy melisma as the band tiptoed through the mist behind her. And Minch’s talents aren’t limited to reinventing the Americana songbook; she’s also adept at repairing guitars. She’s recently hung out her own shingle: if you’ve dropped your vintage Martin on the peg and split it down the back, she knows how to get it back in shape.

And Carol Lipnik and Spookarama, who would have been an equally good choice of headliner, opened the night, the chanteuse wowing the crowd with her four-octave range as she sang with an otherworldly resonance through her trusty echo pedal. Pianist Dred Scott played circus blues, noir jazz and hypnotic, Asian-tinged minimalism over Tim Luntzel’s slinky bass as Lipnik ran through a mix of phantasmagorical favorites and the darkly enigmatic, hypnotic songs she’s recently been adding to her repertoire. Right before her encore, she quoted Rumi, which pretty much spoke for itself: “My shadow is only as beautiful as your candle.”