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Tag: Dina Maccabee

The 50 Best Albums of 2019

This is a playlist, plus one last record at the very end that can’t be heard anywhere online but might be the best of all of them. You can listen to everything else here, almost all of it ad-free: it couldn’t hurt to bookmark this page.

Lots of triage was involved. A very ambitious listener with a dayjob that allows for multitasking can hear maybe eight or nine hundred new albums a year, all the way through. An insanely dedicated blogger can hear bits and pieces of maybe five thousand more. That’s about the limit of what one human can do. You may see a few stragglers here which were technically 2018 releases but got overlooked that year. If your favorite album from 2019 isn’t here, that doesn’t mean it isn’t any good…and it might just turn up here next year.

Other than the very top of the list, there’s no hierarchical ranking. Being chosen as the #50 band out of 50 is like getting picked last for kickball, and that’s kind of mean. Besides, if an album is one of the fifty best out of the literally hundreds of thousands released every year, it has to be damn good. Here we go!

Big Lazy – Dear Trouble
The subtlest, most desolate and ultimately most dynamic album from a group synonymous with cinematic noir menace. Guitarist Steve Ulrich’s sense of irony has never been more refined, and the rhythm section of bassist Andrew Hall and drummer Yuval Lion has never been slinkier. Ulrich is the only musician in history who has been on three albums rated #1 for the year here. Listen at youtube

Changing Modes – What September Brings
Best album of the year with lyrics, the New York art-rockers’ finest, most cinematic, and most political release, a savagely lyrical, spot-on reflection on Trump-era narcissism and repression, laced with shapeshifting instrumentals and frontwomen Wendy Griffiths and Grace Pulliam’s disquietingly lush harmonies. Listen at youtube

The Bright Smoke – Gross National Happiness
The title reflects frontwoman/guitarist Mia Wilson’s signature, withering sarcasm. It’s the band’s most savagely political record, a grimly allusive measure of Trump-era inequality, despair and resistance against all that, with a haunting Joy Division undercurrent. Listen at Bandcamp

Karen Dahlstrom – No Man’s Land
The best short album of the year, with metaphorically-loaded, sharply picturesque narratives referencing apocalypse, smalltown anomie, late-night despondency and a ferocious, defiant anthem for the Metoo era from the powerful Bobtown alto singer and Americana songstress. Listen at her music page 

Hearing Things – Here’s Hearing Things
The best debut albun of 2019, by Brooklyn’s funnest dance band, mashes up horror surt, Booker T & the MG’s, twisted go-go music, Afrobeat, Ethiopiques and the Doors, with organ, sax and surf drums. Listen at Bandcamp

The Dream Syndicate – These Times
Steve Wynn‘s iconic, feral, influential psychedelic guitar-duel band’s quietest, most allusively political and arguably most brilliantly lyrical album. Not bad for a group who put out their first record back in the 80s. Listen at youtube

Michael Winograd – Kosher Style
Unsurpassed for his sizzling clarinet chops, Winograd is also a very colorful composer. With sabretoothed chromatics and slashing minor keys, these new klezmer tunes run the gamut from blisteringly fun to mournful to sardonic, and the band is killer. Listen at Bandcamp

Raphael Severe with the Trio Messiaen – Messiaen: Quartet for the End of Time
Here’s another world-class clarinetist and ensemble playing an especially dynamic, inescapably vivid take on one of the most iconic, haunting pieces of classical music ever written (much of it composed in a Nazi prison camp). Riveting as it is, it raises questions as to how fair it is for this blog to rank it alongside the rest of the artists here. Listen at Spotify

Layale Chaker – Inner Rhyme
The brilliant violinist writes vivid, intense, often hauntingly beautiful compositions built around the rhythmic sophistication of classical Arabic poetry, equal parts Lebanese, Egyptian and western classical music, with occasional detours toward jazz or film score atmospherics. Listen at her music page

Los Wembler’s de Iquitos – Vision Del Ayahuasca
With almost all of their original members, this iconic psychedelic cumbia jamband from the heart of the Peruvian Amazon are as wildly trippy and original as they were fifty years ago. Along with Hearing Things‘ debut, this is the best party record of the year. Listen at Bandcamp

Miguel Zenon and the Spektral Quartet – Yo Soy la Tradicion
The formidable alto saxophonist teams up with one of the world’s edgiest string quartets for a mix of acerbic works with an unselfconsciously Bartokian intensity Listen at their music page

Rev. Screaming Fingers – Music for Driving and Film, vol iII (The Desert Years)
Dusky, loping southwestern gothic tableaux, twangy noir Americana, a little horror surf and ominous big-sky themes from these great guitar instrumentalists. Listen at their music page

Girls on Grass – Dirty Power
Like a female-fronted Dream Syndicate, guitar goddess Barbara Endes’ band rips through paisley underground psychedelia, spaghetti westen themes, snarling new wave and garage rock, with a defiant, politically fearless lyricism Listen at Bandcamp

Russ Tolman – Goodbye El Dorado
Jangly, vividly lyrical western noir rock: disappeances, shattered Hollywood dreams, dead-end kids who don’t have a prayer, and roadtrip anomie from the leader of 80s legends True West. Listen at youtube

Julia Haltigan – Trouble
Turns out that the torchy mistress of Manhattan noir is just as fluent with new wave and vintage CB’s-style powerpop, throughout these tales of nocturnal prowling in the East Village before it was yuppified and whitewashed. Listen at Bandcamp

The Felice Bros. – Undress
This could have been the great lyrical, populist record that Springsgteen made in between Born to Run and Darkness: surreal political broadsides, down-and-out characters and death lingering over everything. Listen at Bandcamp

Jay Vilnai – Thorns All Over
Poet Rachel Abramowitz supplies the lyrics for this haunting, mysterious collection of new murder ballads, over the guitarist/bandleader’s cold starscapes, Lynchian dirges and a relentless, lingering guitar menace. Listen at Bandcamp

Karine Poghosyan – Rachmaninoff & Stravinsky
Nobody plays the Russian Romantics with as much insighful flair as this irrepressible virtuoso. As with Raphael Severe above, it is fair to rate this ravishingly intuitive, picturesque performance of achingly beautiful Rachmaninoff Etude-Tableaux and punishingly difficult Stravinsky piano transcriptions against the current-day artists here? Listen at Spotify

Dina Maccabee – The Sharpening Machine
Epically eclectic, trippy art-rock, chamber pop, pastoral themes and occasional coy new wave from this shapeshifting violinist and songwriter. Listen at Soundcloud

The Sirius Quartet – New World
This adventurous, microtonally-inclined string quartet’s collection of original compositions is a fierce concept album in defiance of the current fascist climate in the US. Listen at Spotify

Yale Strom’s Broken Consort – Shimmering Lights
The un-cheesiest Hanukah instrumental record ever made, the violinist-bandleader’s new arrangements blazing with ferocious solos and bracing Middle Eastern modes. Listen at rockpaperscissors

Eleni Mandell – Wake Up Again
The iconic dark Americana and torch singer’s most hauntingly political album is a series of narratives set behind bars, inspired by her experiences teaching songwriting in the prison-industrial complex. Listen at Bandcamp

Charming Disaster – Spells & Rituals
The constantly shapeshifting murder ballad and dark rock superduo dive further into latin noir, 60s Britrock and even garagey psychedelic sounds, all with their colorfully dark lyricism. Listen at Bandcamp

Noctorum – The Afterlife
Lush, characteristically lyrical, jangly art-rock from iconic twelve-string guitarist Marty Willson-Piper – late of Australian psychedelic legends the Church – with a similarly allstar backing band. Listen at Bandcamp

Laura Carbone – Empty Sea
Bleak, Lynchian panoramas, highway-of-death narratives and some guitarishly snarling gutter blues from one of this era’s great noir singers. Listen at Bandcamp

Unnatural Ways – The Paranoia Party
A grimly surreal, volcanically noisy, rhytmically disorienting concept about contact with aliens from guitarist Ava Mendoza’s searing doom/art-rock power trio. Listen at Bandcamp 

The Maureen Choi Quartet – Theia
Epically twisting, high-voltage, flamenco and Romany-inspired string band music from the violinist and her equally eclectic ensemble Listen at Bandcamp

Budos Band – V
The imaginative Afrobeat and Ethiopiques instrumentalists’ most doom metal-inspired album yet. Listen at Bandcamp

JD Allen – Barracoon
A big comeback of sorts for this era’s most potent tenor saxophonist, scorching his way through a Zora Neale Hurston-inspired mix of ominously modal, tersely evocative protest jazz tunes with a new trio. Listen at youtube

Nancy Braithwaite – To Paradise For Onions: Songs and Chamber Works of Edith Hemenway
The classical clarinetist and her dynamic, nuanced chamber ensemble explore stunningly imagistic, darkly clever, tersely crafted pieces by a now Rhode Island-based, nonagenarian composer whose work has never been released on album before. A major rediscovery. Listen at Spotify

Fabian Almazan – This Land Abounds with Life
A glittering, epically cascading eco-disaster themed concept album from one of this era’s most tunefully virtuosic jazz pianists and his dynamic rhythm section Listen at Bandcamp

Doomstress – Sleep Among the Dead
Pervasive gloom, minor keys, purposeful guitar and unusual elegance from frontwoman Alexis Hollada on the Texas doom metal band’s debut album. Listen at Bandcamp

Bobtown – Chasing the Sun
Bewitching three-part harmonies from Katherine Etzel, Karen Dahlstrom and Jen McDearman and folk noir songwriting that’s just a hair less relentlessly dark than the material that put them on the map. Listen at Bandcamp

Petros Klampanis – Irrationalities
Slinky, brooding, Middle Eastern and Greek-inflected ballads and more kinetic, pulsing material from the eclecic bassist and his excellent trio. Listen at Spotify 

The Well – Death & Consolation
Grim, Sabbathy dirges, paint-peeling Stooges sonics and ornately macabre heavy psychedelia from this Texas band. Listen at Bandcamp

Jason Yeager – New Songs of Resistance
A short parade of first-class pan-latin singers deliver the pianist’s protest jazz reinventions of classic nueva cancion from across the Americas in the 70s, alongside some chillingly lyrical, politically-fueled instrumentals. Listen at Bandcamp

Amy Allison – Pop Tunes & the Setting Sun
A characteristically bittersweet, brilliantly crystallized, lyrical collection of rarities and outtakes by the inimitable Americana singer. Listen at youtube

Soundwalk Collective with Patti Smith – Mummer Love
Rousingly hypnotic North African grooves and immersive atmospherics behind acerbic, often savage poetry by Patti Smith and one of her big influences, Arthur Rimbaud. Listen at Bandcamp

Andplay – Playlist
The meticulously focused, tightly intertwining, colorful violin/viola duo negotiate the dynamic twists and turns of pieces by David Bird, Ashkan Behzadi and Clara Iannotta on their debut ep. Listen at Bandcamp

The Shootouts – Quick Draw
Spot-on, classic 1965-style honkytonk, hard country, Bakersfield twang and a little rockabilly from this slyly aphoristic Akron, Ohio band. Listen at Soundcloud 

The Ragas Live Retrospective
Members of the paradigm-shifting Brooklyn Raga Massive, who put all kinds of radical new spins on classic Indian raga themes, captured live in the studio over more than sixteen hours worth of music. Most of it is sublime; nobody at this blog has listened to the entire record yet. You can start at Bandcamp

Sarah Pagé – Dose Curves
Hypotically shimmery electroacoustic psychedelia and an Indian raga performed on the concert harp. Unselfconsciously magical,  cutting-edge stuff. Listen at Bandcamp 

Zosha Di Castri – Tachitipo
Vocal ensemble Ekmeles, the Jack Quartet, pianist Julia Den Boer, percussion ensemble Yarn/Wire  and a chamber orchestra join the thoughtfully eclectic pianist/composer in a diverse mix of acerbic, socially relevant compositions and art-songs. Listen at Bandcamp

Funkrust Brass Band – Bones & Burning
Sizzling Balkan chromatics, undulating New Orleans grooves and a pretty relentless sense of doom on the theatrical, sprawling brass band’s latest ep. Listen at Bandcamp 

Castle Black – Dead in a Dream
The ferocious female-fronted power trio look back to the most darkly ambitious of the first wave punk bands with their surreal, often haunting latest ep. Listen at Bandcamp 

The Manimals – Multiverse
Crunchy, catchy powerpop and a darkly pervasive Bowie influence on the new album from New York’s’ most entertainingly theatrical band. Listen at Bandcamp 

The Ann Arbor Blues Festival 1969 compilation
Digitized and somewhat sonically tweaked field recordings of icons like Howlin’ Wolf and cult figures like Magic Sam, shredding and wailing in their element onstage, captured by a college kid with a cheap tape recorder. Listen at Bandcamp

Beat Circus – These Wicked Things
One of the first and best of the carnivalesque rock bands of the 90s, back and revitalized with a lavish, darkly picturesque southwestern gothic concept album. Listen at Bandcamp 

The Sometime Boys – The Perfect Home
A characteristically enigmatic mix of distantly Americana-influenced, slinky originals and imaginatively reinvented covers from New York’s most charismatic, kinetically psychedelic band. Listen at Bandcamp

Locobeach – Psychedelic Disco Cumbia
Truth in advertising: trippy chicha, serpentine highway themes and some woozy dub from this tropical supergroup led by members of Los Crema Paraiso and Chicha Libre. Listen at Bandcamp 

Ran Blake & Jeanne Lee – The Newest Sound You Never Heard
Recorded live and in the studio for Belgian radio in 1966 and 1967, these radical reinventions and a handful of originals by the iconic noir pianist and the shatteringly subtle jazz singer rival the brilliance of their iconic 1961 debut. Not streaming anywhere but available on vinyl.

Catchy, Edgy, Shapeshifting Art-Rock and a West Village Show from Eclectic Violinist Dina Maccabee

Dina Maccabee is one of the most versatile and interesting violinists and violists around. She’s a founding member of the Real Vocal String Quartet, and an important part of creepy Twin Peaks cover band the Red Room Orchestra. She’s also a bandleader in her own right and has a glistening, deliciously textured new art-rock album, The Sharpening Machine streaming at Sundcloud. Her next New York gig is on a bill she fits right in with, this August 17 at 3:30 PM as part of Luisa Muhr’s monthly Women Between Arts show – New York’s only multidisciplinary series focusing exclusively on woman performers – at the Glass Box Theatre at the New School, 55 W 13th St. Other artists on this highly improvisational program include dancer Azumi Oe with drummer Carlo Costa and bassist Sean Ali, plus dancer Oxana Chi with performance artist Layla Zami and pianist Mara Rosenbloom. It’s not clear who’s playing when, but everyone is worth seeing. Cover is $20, and be aware that the series has a policy that no one is turned away for lack of funds.

Maccabee’s tunesmithing on the new album is playful and catchy yet trippy and opaque. Echo effects bounce back and forth throughout the briskly bouncy title track, which opens the record. Maccabee runs her pizzicato textures and gentle wafts of sound through a kaleidoscope of effects alongside Brett Farkas’ spare, watery guitar, with hints of both the Cocteau Twins and Pink Floyd.

Maccabee’s crystalline vocals recall Aimee Mann in Could You Be Right, a verdantly orchestrated, surrealistically marching anthem in a Wye Oak vein. Sad Sad Sad Sad Sad Song is a rippling bluegrass banjo tune as ELO might do it – with a nifty fiddle solo and a resolute woman out front. Hey You – an original, not the Pink Floyd “classic rock” radio staple – brings to mind psychedelic pop icon Jenifer Jackson in a pensive, atmospheric moment: “My knowledge is written on my nails and my knuckles, if you refuse to see,” Maccabee’s narrator advises.

Tall Tall Trees is an unselfconsciously gorgeous late Beatlesque anthem set in a theatre where the show never starts; Roger Reidbauer contribufes a deliciously spiraling, dipping guitar solo.

An uneasily charming glockenspiel solo opens Even When the Stars Align, Maccabee’s vocals dancing over a slowly swaying, artfully spare web of textures. “I’m still a million miles away,” she laments. Her acoustic guitar lingers alongside Reidbauer’s spare lines amid the shimmer of the moody, slowly waltzing Green Again, which could be a great lost track from Pink Floyd’s Obscured by Clouds.

Little Bite has a suspiciously sardonic, quasi-martial sway powered by Sylvain Carton’s baritone sax : it’s sort of the missing link between Bjork and Hungry March Band. But I Do is a ruefully swinging oldtimey country tune. The final cut is It Doesn’t Have to Be Okay, a brooding trip-hop tune with big accordion-like swells. The level of detail and creativity on this record is amazing: there are too many neat touches to enumerate here. You’ll see this on the best albums of the year page here in December.

The Red Room Orchestra Bring Iconic Noir Cinematics to the Upper West

Are the Red Room Orchestra the world’s most distinctive noir cinematic band? Considering that they specialize in Twin Peaks themes, if they’re not, there would be something wrong. Last night at what appeared to be a sold-out New York debut at Symphony Space, they went deep into Angelo Badalamenti’s iconic David Lynch tv and film music to conjure up a relentlessly bittersweet, menacing “purgatory,” as bandleader Marc Capelle put it.

But they didn’t just do meticulously arranged, spot-on recreations from the original scores. There were lots of surprises. Who knew that violist Dina Maccabee could do such a perfect Julee Cruise imitation? Or that original cast member James Marshall, singing and wielding his Strat, had the chops to play Hendrix? Or that Capelle, who spent most of the set at the piano, would turn in one of the night’s most gorgeously bittersweet solos, playing muted trumpet on the title theme from Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me?

He and the group have spared no detail to appeal to a rabid fan base who totally geek out on this stuff, not limiting themselves to coy little flourishes on intros and outros. The original Twin Peaks tv themes were the most luridly luscious numbers on the bill, although here they had more of an organic feel than Badalamenti’s original score. Those recordings balance blue-neon tremolo guitar against icy string synth: although these versions had plenty of swirling keyboard orchestration, courtesy of Capelle, Yuka C. Honda and vibraphonist Toby Dammit, who also doubled on keys, the music was warmer and more intimate, amplified by Capelle’s grand piano, Maccabee’s viola and Scott Larson’s looming trombone.

They opened with the tv show’s title theme, bassist Eli Crews and baritone guitarist Tom Ayres doubling their lines on the low end. From there, they slunk and fingersnapped their way through the stripper theme that eventually became would-be femme fatale Audrey Horne’s dance. And they took their time reaching from nostalgic, melancholy Americana to foreboding grey-sky sonics as they worked sweeping, majestic, ineluctably gloomy permutations on dead girl Laura Palmer’s themes.

There were some funny bits too. When guitarist Allyson Baker wasn’t absolutely nailing all those deliciously terse, resonantly tremoloing riffs, she evoked Chuck Berry on acid during a surprisingly un-cheeseball reinvention of Bill Doggett’s silly 50s instrumental Honky Tonk. Singer Karina Denike reached for the rafters with an aching wail in dynamic takes of the expected Orbison hits Lynch has used to drive home big dramatic moments, from Blue Velvet through the Twin Peaks franchises. And Margaret Cho joined with Marshall and Beth Lisick for a couple of over-the-top bits from the drama within the drama, the make-believe soap opera Invitation to Love.

Multi-reedman Ben Goldberg added liquid crystal clarinet as well as gritty low end on contrabass clarinet, notably during the Audrey Horne sequences. Drummer Robin MacMillan provided a nimble, frequently muted swing, often using his mallets. At the end, Marshall plugged in again and blazed through a dirty, noisy take of Hendrix’s Voodoo Chile: Slight Return. It was appropriate because of the Pacific Northwest connection, Capelle explained.

Denike is at Pete’s this Sunday, Feb 17 at 8:30; the Red Room Orchestra are playing a completely different program of material from Wes Anderson movies tonight, Feb 16 at 8 again at Symphony Space;  you can get in for $30.

Exhilarating, Eclectic, Gypsy-Fueled Sounds from the Japonize Elephants

The Japonize Elephants have a new record, Melodie Fantastique, just out, and it’s everything you would expect from the well-loved, cinematic circus rock orchestra. As usual, it’s trippy beyond belief, full of sly humor and ferocious playing. Calling them a gypsy band would be somewhat accurate but not completely. There’s also a steampunk streak that runs through frontman/guitarist Sylvain Carton’s songs like a rocket to Mars launched from the 1886 Paris Exposition. In their alternate universe, bluegrass, noir cabaret, gypsy music, klezmer, movie themes and vintage Lebanese sounds all coexist simultaneously in the same song, more or less. There is no other band on the planet who sound remotely like them.

One of the reasons is Jeremy Baron’s banjo, whose fluid frailing anchors the romping, gypsy-flavored tunes and adds a brisk, rustic country edge. Jason Slota plays tersely echoey, sometimes otherworldly lines on his vibraphone alongside the sizzling twin violins of Megan Gould and Dina Maccabee (also of the deliciously eclectic Real Vocal String Quartet). The jazzier passages are carried by the sax and flute of Mitch Marcus and Chris Hiatt. Calling them an orchestra is not overstating the case: there are a lot of people in this band.

A vaudevillian joke and then a nimbly scampering gypsy-rock tune kick off the album. The title track is the most majestically breathtaking of all the songs, a shapeshifting instrumental that’s part noir tango, part levantine overture, part klezmer dance and part bluegrass, and ends in the last place you would expect it to. The Ancient Mariner’s Boat Show follows it, a twisted, menacing bolero, and then a skronky diptych that sounds like the Lounge Lizards covering the Ventures. You want eclectic?

Gould’s intense Middle Eastern violin solo is the high point of the the uneasily cinematic Call the Zagorsky, followed by the surreallistically lovely oldtime country ballad Breusters, which wouldn’t be out of place in the Balthrop Alabama catalog from a few years ago. The Publisher’s Clearing House Special is a gypsy rock update on the Tubes’ What Do You Want from Life, a cautiomary tale for anyone who might want to rent Dollywood for a week

They go back to vaudevillian and sarcastic with the swaying waltz Lord Crin Crin, follow that with a grinning Spike Jones-style interlude and then Whiskey Willie II, a jaunty bluegrass tune about a bum whose life is about to take an unexpected turn (the stories in these songs are frequently too good to give away). La Vida Callejon Rapida makes fun of Mexican ranchera dramatics, while Fiddle Three takes an Irish reel and adds horns and vibraphone as if every Irish band in the world had them. There’s also the faux-lounge theatrics of Swimming Upstairs, the Zappa-tinged, distantly Middle Eastern This Zorlockian Anthem, a LMAO parody of birthday songs, a couple of droll piano miniatures by Marcus and an unexpectedly straight-up cover of Stardust. Is there anything else they possibly could have included here? A baby’s arm holding an apple? This one’s a lock for one of the best albums of the year: serious Top Ten material.