New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: elia bisker

A Carnivalesque Masterpiece from Kotorino

The cover photo on Kotorino‘s new album Better Than This shows an empty antique couch beneath a bright, mostly cloudless afternoon sky. It’s a considerably sunnier picture than the ones frontman/guitarist Jeff Morris’ songs paint, although the implied solitude is telling. Kotorino began life back in the mid-zeros as a creepy chamber-pop ensemble with something of a steampunk edge, which Morris has pretty much ditched for an even creepier, considerably more muscular circus rock ambience. He is as adept at latin music as he is at noir cabaret, with both styles represented all over the place here. If it’s still possible for there to be such a thing as a “breakthrough album,” this is Kotorino’s – the gypsy rock crowd, the oldtimey swing crowd, the noir contingent and fans of nuevo tango all get plenty to enjoy here. The whole thing is streaming at their Bandcamp page.

The opening track, What Is This Thing is a tango, Morris joining with his Charming Disaster femme fatale foil Ellia Bisker and the rest of the women in the band (tuba player Liz Prince, violinist Estelle Bajou and singer Molly White) for some pretty otherworldly vocal harmonies:

She put him on like a pair of fuzzy slippers
He let her down like a broken elevator…
They were packing it up and saving it for later
She was sleeping in the tub til they got some sunny weather
He was smoking again just to take a little breather

They wrap it up with a wry Dell Shannon quote and a big brassy outro.

North Star State is Morris at his enigmatic best: who are the guy and girl in this oldtimey-flavored duet looking for, and is that person alive or dead? The music is equally clever: endless volleys of counterpoint between the horns, bass and tuba and eventually a big carnivalesque brass-band coda. Going Out Tonight, a picturesque tale of a guy hellbent on springing his girlfriend from a mental ward somewhere in the Midwest, has a devious minor-key pulse: “Come with me for some rebellious exercise,”  Morris grins. He and Bisker duet on the album’s best and most menacing track, Murderer, a lurid crime-jazz number that illustrates why the perfect crime requires a lone perpetrator.

Never Had a Chance, a cha-cha in 7/4 time, is the liveliest and most surreal track here, packed with droll touches like breaks for fingersnaps and bass, a brief but momentous bass sax solo from Gato Loco‘s Stefan Zeniuk and a blazing Jesse Selengut trumpet solo out over an oompah groove.  Morris and Bisker get deceptively chaerming and blithe on the East River Ferry Waltz, before Morris lays on the cynicism – which turns out to have lethal implications, if you pay attention. They follow that with the morose chamber-pop tune Broken Carousel, another waltz, buildling to an unexpectedly savage Morris guitar solo and a big, majestically orchestrated crescendo.

The album’s title track is a nebulous, coldly ambiguous solo piano ballad. They wrap it up with Into the Sky, the album’s most phantasmagorical, epically sweeping song, pulling out all the stops for a cruelly cynical faux-gospel bridge, equally sarcastic girl-group harmonies and a typically blazing horn arrangement. As darkly evocative art-rock goes in 2013, it doesn’t get any better than this: watch for it on the “best albums of the year page” here in about a month.

Kotorino Turns Joe’s Pub Into a Dark Carnival

Right now Brooklyn’s Kotorino are as exciting as any other creepy, carnivalesque band in the world. Having seen Mucca Pazza, Rosin Coven, Rasputina and several others in that vein over the past few months, Kotorino are as lush and menacing as any of them – and they just keep growing. Earlier this evening at Joe’s Pub there were eight other musicians alongside frontman/guitarist Jeff Morris, whose brooding, rakish persona and disquietingly surreal narratives were fleshed out with majestic four-part harmonies, ominous noir vamps and tensely mysterious interludes punctuated by unexpected leaps and dives from throughout the band. This time out, immediately to Morris’ right on ukulele and percussion was Elia Bisker, who plays his dangerously torchy foil in the considerably quieter but equally menacing duo Charming Disaster. Among the rest of the players in the three-piece string section, horns, rhythm section and singing saw were violinist Molly White, bassist Mike Brown, drummer Jerome Morris (Jeff’s jazzy brother), trumpeter Jesse Selengut and low-register reedman Stefan Zeniuk (of psycho mambo band Gato Loco).

Morris’ songs range from noir cabaret to chamber pop and circus rock, with frequent latin and Romany influences. As the band has gotten bigger, the sound has grown louder. They opened the show with a noir mambo and ended with a tango about suicide. In between, they varied their dynamics, throughly rich arrangements with spine-tingling harmonies from the women and one trick ending after another. They began the surreal, probably symbolically loaded hot-air balloon epic Oh My God with a balmy but foreboding lushness, rising to an understated angst fueled by a simmering salsa groove. The next song was a dark cabaret narrative told from the point of view of a guy imagining all the fun he’s going to have after he springs his girlfriend out of the loony bin

A similarly shadowy, worrisome waltz was written for a Fringe Festival show, Morris explained – which says a lot about where these songs come from. This one ostensibly told the story of a cop, “a man in a long black car.” The one before that reminded of fellow Brooklyn art-rockers the Snow with its pulsing minor-key, chromatically bristling tune and its story about a girl who made some kind of promise before falling asleep – or something like sleep – on the kitchen floor. Bisker duetted with Morris on a torchy, jaunty but pensive oldtime swing-tinged song lit up by more of those gorgeous vocal harmonies and a similarly torchy Selengut solo. Then Morris switched to the piano for a brooding number that bookended a graceful art-rock anthem with a nebulously morose, lingering intro and outro.

“What is this mess that we call love?” the women sang on another jaunty swing number, like the Moonlighters on steroids – it was the most carnivalesque number of the night. The night’s most lavish, epic number was Williamsburg Suits, which could be a subtle, musically retro attack on fashion trends or gentrification, or both. Morris and Bisker played it four-handed on piano, Zeniuk’s bass sax and the trumpet trading incisive riffage, down to a long, shimmery, misterioso interlude and finally out with a distantly clanging, tone-bending menace (how many times has the word “menace” appeared here? If nothing else, that explains this band). If you wish you’d caught this concert, Kotorino are playing the album release show for their highly anticipated new one on Sept 27 at around 9:30 at the Cameo Gallery with Gato Loco – who can be just as dark and entertaining – opening at around 8:30.

More of the Sunday Salon and Such

In a lot of ways, New York Music Daily’s Sunday Salon at Zirzamin is a misnomer. It’s a sophisticated scene, but it’s not exactly sedate. There’s no telling what’s going to happen. A lot of the time there’s something during the parade of performers leading up to the 7 PM featured set that upstages the headliner. Drina Seay covering LJ Murphy’s Waiting by the Lamppost for You was one of them. On one hand, watching her sing “I’m hungover and showing my years” was just plain funny (she looks about grad-school age: if you were a bartender, you’d card her). But that didn’t matter: she can wail when she wants, but she hung back and gave it a poignancy and dignity that you wouldn’t expect in a portrait of sheer dejection and despair.

Then there was Charming Disaster  – Kotorino’s Jeff Morris with Elia Bisker – doing a jaunty yet absolutely creepy four-handed ragtime piano piece and managing not to claw each other, Bisker’s moonscape resonance over Morris’ deadpan romp. They headlined Salon number 22 with a menacingly charming duo set with Morris mostly on guitar and Bisker on ukulele. She’s got the distant femme fatale persona down, dead cold, the perfect foil for Morris’ brooding gypsy and swing-spiked bounces and waltzes. They did not one but two songs about murder conspiracies gone wrong, a similarly failed twin grifters’ tale as well as moody, nocturnal material from each others’ catalogs. They make a good team, and they play a lot of shows: watch this space.

Lorraine Leckie followed them on a rare doublebill. This time out she had Calum Ingram on cello playing ominous low register ambience, with Banjo Lisa adding her stark, scary-beautiful otherworldly vocal harmonies. You would think that Leckie would have used this configuration to air out the darkest side – which is very, very dark – of her recent chamber pop songs, but instead she flipped the script and took a lot of her more upbeat rock catalog down into the abyss. What once had a T-Rex feel in this configuration sounded a lot more like Ziggy-era Bowie but with better vocals. She’s at the big room at the Rockwood on April 22 at 8.

To backtrack a little, Serena Jost headlined Salon 19 a couple of weeks previously . The multi-instrumentalist bandleader/chanteuse had a Joe’s Pub show to warm up for, and counterintuitively, instead of bringing the band and doing what would have been an open rehearsal, she went to a similarly stripped-down configuration featuring the eclectically brilliant Amanda Thorpe on slide guitar, keys, wood flute and also stark, scary-beautiful harmonies. Jost gets props for her cello work, but she’s also a brilliant singer – hanging out with Thorpe all these years has rubbed off. Through lithely jangling chamber pop, stark cello-and-voice tableaux, a stately 6/8 art-rock anthem, she radiated a lowlit allure with her precise, measured vocals, ripe to the point of drawing everyone in without falling off the vine. Then at Joe’s Pub, she and her full band – Julian Maile on guitar, Rob Jost on bass and horn, Rob DiPietro on drums, a keyboardist, and Thorpe and Greta Gertler on harmonies – soared and occasionally roared through most of the songs on her sensationally good new album A Bird Will Sing. The high point of the show – and maybe the past month, in terms of sheer sonic bliss – was the trio of high harmonies on an irresistibly pulsing, crescendoing version of Sweet Mystery, a song that could not have been more aptly titled.

The star of Salon 20 was Seay, who brought a full band featuring Eric Seftel on drums, Monica Passin a.k.a. L’il Mo playing bass as if she’d been doing it her whole life (she had about a week’s worth of practice, it turned out – who knew). “Is there a better guitarist in New York than Steve Antonakos?” one audience member wondered aloud as Seay’s lead player fired off keening pedal steel-style lines, cooly menacing Nashville gothic riffs and soulfully intricate jazz leads. Sassy, sophisticated country songs like the catchy shuffle Whatcha Gonna Do and the soul-infused, stop-time bounce Can’t Fight Falling in Love paired off against the absolutely gorgeous, minor-key Waking Up Crying, an absolutely evil, slide guitar-driven, oldtime swing-flavored All For You and the torchy, Julia Haltigan-esque Where Is the Moon Tonight. The high point of the set was when Seay segued from a slow, slinky, absolutely lurid take of one of her best ballads, Chase My Blues Away to Francoise Hardy’s Le Temps de L’Amour and gave that one a New York noir edge, singing in perfect French. A week later, Antonakos  would be the headliner at Salon 20 with his own tuneful, sardononically humorous songs, joined by Seay who this time added harmonies as she did so memorably back in the day at Banjo Jim’s before she started her own band.

The regular cast has had more memorable moments than can be counted. The Salon’s own Lauraly Grossman’s Cat Power-ish narratives edge closer and closer to noir, shadowy blues. LJ Murphy kicked off Seay’s set with a ferocious, bluesy intensity, hot on the heels of his careening trio performance at Hank’s Saloon the previous Saturday with Professor Jim Porter guesting and adding a whole other level of creepy surrealism on washboard. And this past week, Amelia Belle-Isle graced the stage with her ridiculously tuneful oldtime swing-flavored songs and subtle, alluring voice.

There have been plenty of other great shows happening around town, literally too many to chronicle here. The last week of the past month, the Wu-tang Clan’s Raekwon delivered a nonchalant, impressively tight, seemingly endless medley of his 90s hits at the swanky new Stage 48 way over past 12th Ave. on 48th Street. The place was packed with a mix of older people who knew every word and practicallly drowned out the vocals (the sound here seems to be a work in progress), and kids getting their first look at one of the icons of 90s East Coast hardcore. The Chef began with Cash Rules Everything Around Me and just got hotter from there.

Violinist Courtney Orlando and cellist Lauren Radnofsky’s performance of Luciano Berio sequenzas at the Miller Theatre last month deserves a mention. These pieces are like wartime: frenzied, anxious, cruelly frantic cadenzas that suddenly give way to still, suspenseful ambience, and while neither musician made it look easy – that would have been impossible – just getting through them without breaking strings would have been a triumph. That they were able to mine those weird juxtapositions for genuine emotion made the concert all the more worthwhile. That, and all the free beer the theatre was giving away.

The night of the Drina Seay show at the Salon, New York Junk played one of those oldschool New York punk bills at Bowery Electric. On one hand, their tunefully growling, glammy early 70s style isn’t covering any new ground, but just like the Dolls and Lou Reed, they’re catchy and they have the sound, and the wry, black humor-driven, black leather-clad doom and angst down cold. The bassist – formerly of 80s punk legends the B-Girls – bopped and pushed the songs along with catchy riffage underneath the Stonesy roar of the two guitarists.

This past week had a trifecta of good shows. Tom Warnick & World’s Fair played their usual gallows humor-driven mix of blue-eyed soul, horror surf, Doorsy jamrock and New England noir at Freddy’s Saturday night. Jerome O’Brien, late of the great Dog Show played a mix of his endlessly entertaining, literate rock tunes solo on twelve-string guitar at…where else…Zirzamin. And Maynard & the Musties brought their mix of wry oldschool country and dark highway rock to Cowgirl Seahorse down in South Street Seaport, Naa Koshie Mills’ violin/viola lines soaring over Dikko Faust’s trombone and Mo Botton’s richly twangy guitar. Frontman Joe Maynard writes some of the most nonchalantly poignant, richly tuneful songs around: it was a treat to hear him and the crew swing their way through the dark-sky, Neil  Young-ish expanse of Lightly Honest and the gorgeous yet utterly twisted Elvis Museum.