New York Music Daily

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Tag: elo

Torrential Rainy-Day Sounds From All-Acoustic Art-Rock Band the Arcane Insignia

If you’re going to write lushly orchestrated art-rock, you might as well go all the way and open your debut album with a seventeen-minute epic. That’s what the Arcane Insignia did. The first track on their first release A Flawed Design – up at Bandcamp as a name-your-price download – begins with a gently fingerpicked waltz that gives way to pulsing, trickily rhythmic bursts – from violin, cello and acoustic guitar rather than synth and Les Pauls played through Marshall stacks. From there the band make their way gracefully through ambience punctuated by alternately delicate and emphatic guitar as the strings – Noah Heau on cello and Tina Chang-Chien on viola – swirl, and hover, and burst. Rainy-day music has never sounded so stormy. Imagine ELO’s first album beefed up by an entire symphony orchestra, playing classic Peter Gabriel-era Genesis. There’s no other band on the planet who sound like this.

Now where are they playing this titanic, dynamically shifting stuff tonight? Madison Square Garden? Bowery Ballroom? That hideous basketball arena in Cobble Hill? Nope. They’re playing the Delancey – which actually has an excellent PA system. Cover is $10.

“Searching the playground for what we could obtain,” frontman Alejandro Saldarriaga Calle sings cryptically as the opening track rises and then recedes – the way his long scream gets picked up by the strings, and then how he picks it up again is one of the year’s most adrenalizing recorded moments. The gusts and eventual swoops from the strings keep it from being anticlimactic.

Architects of a Flawed Design begins with carefully tiptoeing staccato strings and guitar harmonics, “The windows are closed…how is anyone supposed to enter? Calle ponders as the music grows more kinetic, a titanic choir of wordless vocals – Martha Stella Calle, Allie Jessing and Jamel Lee, multitracked many times over – rising over chopping guitar chords and uneasily lingering strings.

Chapter 9 – Trail of Extinguished Suns (that’s the third track) is more darkly phantasmagorical, Calle’s voice rising higher, the song punctuated by momentary pauses amid the breakers crashing beneath the relentless overcast skies above. As in the other tracks, his dissociative lyrics echo the title’s grim implications. while the alternating long and leaping tones of his voice serves as one of the band’s instruments as much as they carry the lyrics. 

Ominous folk noir guitar riffs and swlring strings give way to a mighty pulse as Cardinal and Subliminal gets underway, then the music hits an uneasy dance fueled by the cello. They bring it full circle with a wistful variation at the end.

Obelisk, a diptych, begins with Fallen Shell, stark cello underpinning sparsely pensive guitar, rising to an emphatic waltz anchored by nimbly tumbling percussion and then back down, with a relentless angst and a final machinegunning drive that could be Iron Maiden…acoustic.

The dramatic vocals, suspenseful pauses, fierce strumming and gritty strings of part two, Liquid Skies, bring to mind 70s British cult favorites the Doctors of Madness at their most symphonic.

Gemini Cycle begins out of a wry segue. Bracingly soaring cello joins a balletesque guitar/cello duet (tons of overdubs here), then the band build the album’s most baroque, lush crescendos, balanced by moody, calm, overcast interludes and another gargantuan choral segment. There’s also a rather anguished, waltzing bonus track, Maleguena Salerosa, spiced with tango allusions and delicious chromatics. Although this storm is so pervasive and unrelenting that after awhile all the songs start to blend into each other, it’s a hell of a song! Count this as the best debut rock record of 2018 so far.

The Godfather of Powerpop Headlines an Iconic Brooklyn Dive This Saturday Night

Paul Collins is widely considered the godfather of powerpop. Ray Davies is one of his contemporaries, and a good comparison. Historically, what Collins was doing in the late 60s predates both Badfinger and Cheap Trick. And he’s never stopped touring or recording. This blog was in the house for a couple of twinbills the ageless cult favorite tunesmith played with peerlessly cinematic noir rock stylist Karla Rose several months back at Berlin, the first a full-band show and the second a rare solo electric gig. Collins’ next show is with his band at Hank’s this Saturday night, June 9 at around 11; ferocious, twin guitar-fueled, Radio Birdman-esque psychedelic punks the Electric Mess open the night at 10. Cover is $7.

Collins’ latest release – streaming at Spotify – is a long-awaited, standalone reissue of two rare cassette ep’s, Long Time Gone, from 1983, and To Beat or Not to Beat, from two years later. Both are a delicious blast from the past. It’s Collins at his catchy, anthemic best. What a trip it is to hear him playing with an icy chorus box guitar tone in Broken Hearted, the catchy anthem that opens the collection, building to a classic D-A-G chorus, spiced with a scrambling solo that’s almost bluegrass.

The second cut,  Long Time Gone is a vampy, punchy, distantly Motown-influenced number. Working on a Good Thing sounds like Buddy Holly at halfspeed, while Find Somebody Else brings to mind what the Church were doing at the time, Collins working the spare/lushly jangly contrast for all it’s worth.

Standing in the Rain – an original, not the ELO song – has a slow, majestic groove and tasty acoustic/electric textures. The reissue’s hardest-rocking track, Good Times, could be WIllie Nile, while the big European hit All Over the World – this guy liked to nick Jeff Lynne song titles, huh?  – has snappy bass and organ swooshing distantly behind the jangle and crunch, up to a unexpectedly shreddy guitar solo.

Dance Dance comes across as Nick Lowe covering the Stray Cats; the allusively Beatlesque Making You Mine foreshadows Liza & the WonderWheels, a dozen years before the cult favorite Brooklyn band’s heyday.

Burning Desire is a 19th Nervous Breakdown ripoff. “Have you heard about the Moral Majority, man is that a joke?” Coilins asks in the echoey Give Me the Drugs, unsurprisingly the most acidically psychedelic track here. The final track is the bitttersweet Always Got You on My Mind. If catchy, vampy verses that build to even catchier, singalong choruses are your jam, this is your guy.

A word about the venue, if you haven’t already heard: Hank’s is closing sometime this year, finally making room for that luxury condo building every real Brooklynite in the neighborhood has been dreading for more than a decade. If you’re thinking of paying your last respects to the place that was Brooklyn’s original home for honkytonk, and innumerable good rock shows for pretty much the past seventeen years or so, this is as good a chance as you’ll get before it’s gone forever.

Sloan Bring Their Perennially Catchy Powerpop and Psychedelia to Bowery Ballroom

You remember Sloan, right? The Canadian Guided By Voices? They’ve got a characteristically burning, catchy, anthemic new album, simply titled 12 (since it’s their twelfth) streaming at Bandcamp, and a Bowery Ballroom gig tomorrow night, May 10 at 9 PM. General admission is $25.

The opening track, Spin Our Wheels has everything that made the band so popular back in the day: insistent downstroke guitars and a big stadium rock chorus, part Big Star, part Cheap Trick. “Watch how far we spin our wheels,” lead guitarist Patrick Pentland intones with sarcastic cheer.

The band build All of the Voices from spare, fresh-faced 60s Britpop to big-studio crunch, with a deliciously icy Pentland chorus-box guitar solo. “All of the choices you made are killing me,” is the refrain.

“The sun shadows the cool chalet,” bassist Chris Murphy sings in Right to Roam, a tongue-in-cheek 60s psych-pop travel narrative that wouldn’t be out of place in the Jigsaw Seen catalog. Murphy’s bass dances out of the mud, drummer Andrew Scott builds from spare and spacious to a steady shuffle, and the guitars build a folk-rock web in the Grateful Dead-inflected Gone for Good.

Rhythm guitarist Jay Ferguson’s gritty, distorted chords anchor The Day Will Be Mine, a relentless, vintage Cheap Trick-style anthem with a big Mick Ronson-esque solo from Pentland.

Essential Services is the band’s surreal, insistently pulsing Mr. Blue Sky:

Is everyone a soldier and there’s no end in sight?
And the ones that do the running exercise their right
To police tomorrow ‘cause they must be moving on
So much for the frontline, win the marathon

Don’t Stop (If It Feels Good Do It) is Sloan at their cynical, sarcastic, faux Chuck Berry best:

You’re site-specific, Mac
I’m under attack
The only time you cross the line
Is when you cross it back…
If I said your behavior suffocates, would you care?

Year Zero is a delicious blend of enigmatic 60s Laurel Canyon jangle and powerpop from ten years later. The band gets even more retro with Have Faith, a garage-rock nugget that could be the Flamin’ Groovies.

The Lion’s Share has a sparkly shine and a cynical singalong melody, part Smiths, part New Pornographers. By contrast, Wish Upon a Satellite has Quadrophenia-level Who bombast. The album winds up with 44 Teenagers, a broodingly swaying Beatlesque anthem, sort of a mashup of Paperback Writer and I Am the Walrus. Raise your lighters and sing along.

Emma Grace Stephenson Brings Her Dynamic Piano Songcraft to Gowanus This Weekend

If state-of-the-art tuneful songcraft is your thing, the place to be this weekend is at Shapeshifter Lab on April 29 at 7 PM where brilliantly eclectic Australian pianist and singer Emma Grace Stephenson opens a fantastic triplebill, leading a trio with a surprise mystery guest singer (the venue says it’s Kristin Berardi). Afterward at a little after 8 another pianist, Richard Sussman leads his sweeping, enveloping allstar Sextet, which includes Tim Hagans on trumpet; Rich Perry on tenor sax and Zach Brock on violin. Then at 9:30 by the Notet with saxophonist Jeremy Udden, trombonist JC Sanford, guitarist Andrew Green and guests playing he album release show for their new one.

Stephenson is an artist who rightfully could headline a bill like this. She’s an extraordinarily vivid composer whose work gravitates toward the dark side. Her greatest achievement so far is probably her work with the Hieronymus Trio, whose 2016 album is a high-water mark in recent noir cinematic jazz. But she’s also a songwriter, and has a plaintively dynamic new album, Where the Rest of the World Begins, with them and singer Gian Slater, due out soon but not yet up at her music page.

Maybe coincidentally, the opening track, Crows Will Still Fly comes across as a more rhythmically tricky take on the same kind of moody parlor pop that Stephenson’s fellow Oz songwriter Greta Gertler Gold has perfected over the past decade or so. Slater’s airy, expressive high soprano is a cross between Gertler Gold and Minnie Riperton, but more misty than either singer. The lithe bass and drums of Nick Henderson and Oliver Nelson push the song into a bright, triumphant clearing for Slater’s scatting; then Stephenson follows with a similarly crescendoing piano solo. “With great joy comes great sorrow” is the theme.

Song For My Piano is a wry, saloon blues-love ballad: “While you throw stones in the water, blowing my cover, who am I kidding?” Slater wants to know; then the bandleader goes for a cautiously rippling spiral of a solo. As a pianist, Stephenson brings to mind Mara Rosenbloom’s blend of neoromantic gleam and brushfire improvisation.

If the Sun Made a Choice has a jaunty Dawn Oberg-like bounce and an imagistic lyric pondering the pitfalls of narrow, dualistic thinking. Rising out of purposeful chords and washes of cymbals, Love Is Patient is much more expansive, even rubato in places: ”Always in the present tense with every sense, do less, live more,” Slater cajoles.

Stephenson switches to Rhodes, then eventually moves back to the grand piano for Going In Circles. an unlikely but successful mashup of artsy ELO-style pop, 70s soul and trickily metric, tightly  unspooling Philip Glass-ine melody. The final cut is the epic title track, which takes a turn in the brooding direction of the trio’s previous album. Stephenson opens it spaciously and expands from there with her rippling water imagery:

An endless flow of useless thoughts and consequent sensations
Can govern every step we take filling us with trepidation
But we are not the thoughts within nor just an empty vessel…

From there a magically misterioso drum solo and Stephenson’s pointillistic, music-box-like solo punctuate this poetic meditation on impermanence and change. Lots to sink your ears into here from a fearlessly individualistic talent who defies easy categorization.

A Rapturous, Hauntingly Spare Solo Album From Enigmatic Cello Rock Songstress Serena Jost

The sheer hummability of cellist/multi-instrumentalist Serena Jost’s music contrasts with the opaqueness of her lyrics. In her music, nothing is ever as it seems despite all indications to the contrary. That enigmatic sensibility has served her well over the past fifteen years. The closest comparison is ELO’s Jeff Lynne, a similarly brilliant tunesmith whose signature sound blends classical ideas with rock, and has a similarly distinctively, elegant production style as well. Jost’s newest album, Up to the Sky – streaming at her music page – is her most ambitious to date. It’s a solo recording, just cello and vocals, recorded in the rich, reverberating sonics of St. Peter’s Church at 346 W 20th St. in Chelsea, where she’s playing the album release show on April 19 at 7:30 PM. Cover is $10; a reception will follow.

Window opens the album. Jost’s stark, ambered low chords, circling in a Philip Glass vein, anchor her clear, pensive vocals. A recurring shooting star reference adds to the nocturnal rapture and unease.

The influence of Jost’s frequent collaborator Amanda Thorpe shines through plaintively in The Cut, a canteringly hypnotic, Britfolk-tinged, plaintively imagistic lament. Likewise, the wave motion of Clement – just vocalese and cello – sets the stage for Great Conclusions. Playing this with her band, Jost cuts loose with a galloping, crescendoing intensity, but in this version, her pizzicato attack is muted, her vocals understated and clear, echoing Linda Thompson as the song’s gloomily allusive narrative winds out.

Hallway. another instrumental with vocalese, brings in a hazy late-afternoon sun, introducing the baroque-flavored vignette Happiness. “Happiness has come and gone without warning, just a lantern in the night.” Jost intones.

Lullaby is a melody much of the world knows from childhood; the cello adds a newly somber undercurrent. By contrast, It’s a Delight rises to an unexpectedly triumphant crescendo over the sparest, circling low-register riff. Jost works that dichotomy again in Silver Star, its images of escape and release over subtle variations on a mantra-like cello phrase. The album concludes, unresolved, with the fragmentary, echoing, mysterious Red Door. Fans of darkly individualistic songwriters from Carol Lipnik to Connie Converse will devour this. Indie classical people ought to check this out as well – for what it’s worth, Jost once arranged and led a fifty-cello performance of Terry Riley’s In C!

Tasty Psychedelic Tropicalia and a Union Pool Album Release Show by Renata Zeiguer

Renata Zeiguer sings in a balmy, dreamy high soprano and writes tropical psychedelic rock songs that often slink their way toward the noir edges of soul music. Yet as Lynchian as the guitar textures can be, her music isn’t gloomy – if there’s such a thing as happy noir, it’s her sound. And her new album, Old Ghost – streaming at Bandcamp – sounds like she had a great time making it. She’s playing the release show this Feb 23 at 11 PM at Union Pool; cover is $12.

“You’ve got a grip on salvation, a heavenly whip, I know,” Zeiguer intones cajolingly in the album’s opening cut, Wayside, which rises from a simple, catchy bossa-tinged vamp to a catchy, anthemic backbeat sway. Once you get past the jarring out-of-tune guitars and lo-fi synth on the intro to Bug, it morphs into a starry, ELO-ish romp with a gritty undercurrent. That uneasy catchiness pervades Below, from its Ellingtonian intro, to its lemon-ice chorus-box guitar riffs and gently pulsing samba rhythm.

After All comes across as a noisier take on Abby Travis-style orchestral noir – or 90s cult favorites Echobelly at their noisiest and dirtiest. Zeiguer’s coy melismas over the altered retro 60s noir soul backdrop of Dreambone evoke Nicole Atkins at her most darkly surreal – Zeiguer’s fellow Brooklynite Ivy Meissner also comes to mind.

The swaying Follow Me Down, awash in uneasily starry reverb guitars, depicts a lizard “Steadily slithering, steadily, patiently swallowing me whole.” The song’s mix of guitar textures – burning and distorted, keening, and lushly tremoloing – is absolutely luscious.

Neck of the Moon contrasts insistent syncopation and offhandedly noisy, flaring guitar work with Zeiguer’s signature starlit sonics. The dichotomy is similar in They Are Growing, pulsar guitar twinkles and pulses lingering over a brisk new wave shuffle beat. The album winds up with its title track, Gravity (Old Ghost), a steady, bittersweet lament about something that’s “only dissipating over time,” set to a catchy, Motown-inflected groove.

This is a great playlist for hanging out with friends on a smoky evening, adrift in the bubbling, percolating textures of the guitars and keys, Zeiguer’s comfortingly calm yet irrepressibly soaring vocals percolating through the haze. It would make a good soundtrack to that Netflix show about the weed delivery guy – now what’s that called?

Funny, Socially Aware, Singalong Tunesmithing from North of the Border at the Mercury Tonight

Toronto band the Fast Romantics’ latest album American Love – streaming at Bandcamp – was conceived in the shock and horror after the 2016 Presidential Election. It’s a considerably generous gesture from the powerpopsters’ frontman Matthew Angus, a salute to all good things American rather than the cheap shot he could have taken so easily. The model for the songs is Born to Run-era Springsteen (with plenty of Cheap Trick and ELO thrown in), yet not in a cheesy, imitative way. There’s hope and urgency and a lot of humor, some of it allusive and some of it a lot more obvious, in its vast sonics, pounding beats and mighty choruses. It wouldn’t be hype to call it one of the funniest albums of the year. The band are playing the Mercury tonight, June 21 at 8; cover is $15.

The album opens with Everybody’s Trying to Steal Your Heart, a big stomping vintage Springsteenian anthem with stadium-sized singalong oh-ohs. For all the big-studio bluster, it’s an unexpectedly subtle look at a dilemma that everybody with an attractive mate has to deal with at some point.

“Although I couldn’t afford it, I bought a beat-up guitar, I worked til four in the morning in a broken-down bar,” Angus croons as Why We Fight, a tribute to the good things currently under siege from the Trumpites, gets underway. While there’s plenty of tongue-in-cheek sarcasm in American Love and keyboardist Lisa Lorenz’s epic synthesized string charts, it’s probably the only song ever written by a Canadian to reference the constitution of the United States – in a favorable way.

“I’ve smoked all kinds of flowers, now I’ve got superpowers,” Angus announces in Get Loved, a hilariously sideways look at a dude whose chemical overindulgences have had a similar impact on his libido. Ready for the Night is even funnier, a meta look at the process of songwriting, set to a mix of uneasy Orbison noir pop and bouncy new wave.

Radio Waves opens with a joke that’s too good to give away and stays just as amusing, an artsy late 70s ELO powerpop tale told from the point of view of a radio wave who “can feel you from a million miles away.” Julia spins a famous 60s riff through a fuzz guitar pedal, then the band stays in that decade, more or less throughout Alberta, a sardonically cheery, swaying lost-love tale with a surprise ending.

Kids Without a Country is an anthem for a new generation of Americans:

You were a refugee
I was a soldier’s son
But we couldn’t sleep together
So on the night of the storm we cut and run
Was just you and me and the weather

Runaway Girl is a harder-rocking, more enveloping take on the same idea, but with more oblique political subtext. Guitarist/keyboardist Kirty’s oxycontin vocals hover behind a wall of guitars and woozy synth in How Long Is This Gonna Last, which might or might not be about the election. The album closes with Heaven’s All Right and its Lynchian tremolo guitars. C’mon, Janey, wrap yourself round these blue velvet rims and strap your hands ‘cross my engines.

You Bred Raptors? Bring Their Cinematic, Instantly Recognizable, Individualistic Grooves to Drom Tomorrow Night

If you pass through the station at Union Square at night, you’ve probably seen one of New York’s most distinctive, high-voltage bands. You Bred Raptors? typically hold fort over the N and R platforms there. Just the sight of Peat Rains, Bryan Wilson and Patrick Bradley wailing on eight-string bass, cello and drums, respectively, is enough to make pretty much anybody stop dead in their tracks. Then there’s the relentless barrage of riffs, and textures, and epic cinematic vistas that transcend any concept of a cello-metal band, let alone what those low-end instruments can typically do. Are these irrepressible instrumentalists a funk band? Sometimes, sure. Postrock? Why not? Prog, too? Umm…while there will probably be some hobbity old men in Gentle Giant tour shirts from 1974 who will dig this stuff, not really – You Bred Raptors? are too tuneful and purposeful. They’re playing the album release show for their new one International Genetics tomorrow night, June 15 at 8 PM at Drom; advance tix are $15 and are still available.

The album – streaming at Bandcamp – opens with the slinky Bayonette, Rains switching between anchoring Wilson’s dancing cello lines and burning with big distorted chords: imagine Break of Reality but with a metal edge. The second number, Polkadot has a playful, catchy minor-key Balkan-tinged groove with tasty, baroque-tinged harmonies between the cello and the high strings of the bass, peaking out with a sweet new wave of British heavy metal.

Ringing and resonant glockenspiel from Bradley carries the melody in Bellflower, an unexpectedly summery soul tune that builds toward a brisk highway theme. Stalemate has a trip-hop sway and more intricate baroque exchanges between bass and cello; Jethro Tull only wish they played Bach as tightly as these guys do this, all the way to a starkly fiery early ELO-ish peak.

Lagoon has an easygoing giraffe-walking pace, tinges of Afrobeat from the bass, then shifting to a muted suspense. Sharks & Minnows follows a bucolic, brisk stroll fueled by Wilson’s rustic lines, then predators loom in from the shadows and eventually all hell breaks loose. The band brings the glock ripples back for Vault, a wryly strutting baroque-rock number.

The crescendoing, anthemic Hyperbole is the album’s funkiest track. Melancholy cello contrasts with janglerock guitar lines from the bass and bright glock touches in Eyehole of a Domino. There’s gritty frustration boiling over into rage and hints of flamenco in the growling 6/8 phrases of Kowtow circle around.

Smithereens, the album’s most epic track, begins as an bittersweet, elegaic march – a wartime parable maybe? – and morphs into an art-rock take on a folk hymn theme of sorts. The album winds up with Ass to Ass, most likely the only trip-hop art-rock canon ever written. Pound for pound, this is one of the catchiest albums of the year – and as tersely as the band plays here, they take these songs to some pretty crazy places live. Recommended if you like Radiohead, the Mars Volta, Los Crema Paraiso and Rasputina.

A Rare Brooklyn Show and a New Record From the Great Aimee Mann

You know that voice: cool, reserved, minutely nuanced. You know those melancholy major/minor changes and Beatlesque melodies. You know that withering cynicism, that jaundiced eye, those double entendres you wish you’d written. If you don’t, Aimee Mann’s latest album Mental Illness is as good a place to start as any. Not bad for somebody who’s been making music since the 80s.

She doesn’t play Brooklyn a lot – although she did record a live DVD there. A future daily New York music blog owner brought a date to that one, at St. Ann’s Warehouse in the summer of 2004. The date didn’t go anywhere – Mann probably would have seen that coming a mile away. Or maybe she’d say it was just as well.

Believe it or not, you can bring a date to see Mann in Brooklyn, because for some reason her June 26 show at the Music Hall of Williamsburg isn’t sold out as of today. Which is even crazier since fellow cynic, Silicon Valley satirist/songwriter Jonathan Coulton is opening the night at 8. It won’t be a cheap date since general admission is $35 –  in order to avoid the embarrassment of spending even more you’re going to have to pick up your tickets at the cash table at the Mercury Lounge before 7 PM on a weeknight. But it could be worth it.

The new album came out earlier this year and is streaming at Spotify. Even by Mann’s standards, it’s a subdued, gloomy affair. It’s mostly acoustic. Mann plays guitar and bass, Jamie Edwards filling the Jon Brion role on keys and guitar, with Jay Bellerose on drums and longtime sideman Paul Bryan on bass along with a lavish string section that gives this album genuinely epic grandeur in places.

The opening track, Goose Snow Cone paints a bleak, wintry chamber-pop picture of holding on by one’s fingernails. “Always melt at the feet of the devil I know,” Mann laments. “I just wanted a place but I ended up gone.” There are more drug metaphors here than on any Mann album since 2002’s iconic Lost in Space.

The  stately, waltzing Stuck in the Past, with its major/minor Beatles changes, is classic Mann, Richard Dodd’s stark cello rising to take centerstage: “Like drawing rings around Saturn,  a shadow is cast, but now it falls a pattern.” Another waltz, You Never Loved Me is all the more disconsolate for how sparse and direct it is: the tumbling Spectorian drums as the song winds out are an apt touch

Rollercoasters, a slowly swaying, fingerpicked ballad awash in fairground images, is one of the great drug songs ever, and maybe the best one on the album. White powder isn’t something Ward White has ever written about, but if he did, the song might sound like this.

Slow and lush, heavy like a thunderstorm, Lies of Summer doesn’t reveal whether the narrator is addressing a prisoner or a dead person until the very end:

Saw you at the fall
Picture on a closed circuit
Boy you lost it all it
Thinking you could rework it

The dancing string arrangement can’t mask the wrath in the art-rock anthem Patient Zero – consider,  just for starters, what that title implies.

News filtered over the transom
That a villain ended up with a part
You paid your respects like a ransom
To a role that was doomed from the start

The title Good for Me, with its shivery ELO stings, is sarcastic – of course, right? It’s about self-deception:. “What a waste of a smoke machine,” Mann intones, and then immediately launches into a litany of powder drug metaphors. She follows it with Knock It Off, a kiss-off anthem and the album’s most opaque number.

Mann revisits the doomed boxing imagery she worked so inimitably on 2005’s The Forgotten Arm in Philly Sinks, yet another waltz. Then she picks up the pace – just a little – with Simple Fix. Three guesses as to what this one’s about. After all this pain, you can hardly blame her for setting her sights on “prizes of adrenaline.”

The album winds up on a catchy and surprisingly simple note with Poor Judge (as in “my heart is a poor judge”). If Magnolia is Mann’s commonly acknowledged masterpiece and Lost in Space a less common one, this is in the same league.. You’ll see it on the best albums of 2017 page along with recent releases by Ran Blake and Dominique Eade, Alice Lee and Ward White.

Ensemble Mik Nawooj Reinvent Hip-Hop Classics in Harlem

“Rolling down the street, smoking indo!” soprano Anne Hepburn Smith sang, belting at gale force for maximum dramatic effect. A sold-out audience of white tourists exploded in laughter.

“Sipping on gin and juice!” Ensemble Mik Nawooj’s two MCs, Sandman and Do D.A.T. responded. There wasn’t a member of the chamber orchestra behind them who could resist a shit-eating grin. It was as if to say, we can’t believe we’re actually playing this song at all, let alone this way…heating up the coldest night of the year, Saturday night at the Apollo, no less.

In their first-ever New York concert, at the third-floor cafe space there, that Ensemble Mik Nawooj managed to deliver a show worth seeing at all was a major accomplishment. If they’d been able to hear each other onstage, if the sound mix had been even remotely decent, or if bandleader JooWan Kim hadn’t been forced to play the show and conduct the band from the floor, seated in front of the stage at an out-of-tune upright piano whose lid had been ripped off, there’s no telling how much more comfortable this mighty band would have sounded.

They take a well-loved hip-hop formula – moody, lush strings with eerily tinkling piano – to the next level. Hip-hop with a live band goes way back to acts like Rare Essence and Schoolly D, but this show had more in common with Yaasin Bey’s most lavish mashups of rap and classical music. Kim told the crowd that his new arrangements of popular rap hits, most of them from the 90s, would be radical reinventions, and he wasn’t kidding.

Smith didn’t come in until the death-obsessed second number, like Oya with the thunderbolt when things got really intense. The menacing twinkle from Kim’s fingers mingled with the washes of strings from violinist Clare Armenante and cellist Saul Richmond-Rakerd. Flutist Elizabeth Talbert and clarinetist James Pytko animated the set’s funkiest moments while bassist Eugene Theriault and drummer LJ Alexander gave the tunes more swing than any sample or drum machine ever could.

The two MCs nailed the rapidfire rap toward the end of the show’s epic opener syllable for tonguetwisting syllable. Kim directed brisk, catchy ELO-ish chamber pop interludes, starry macabre set pieces and baroque violin passages in between the rappers’ manic flow, bubbly woodwinds interspersed with the lyrics over the tight rhythm section. They mined the Wu-Tang Clan’s classic first album for several joints, starting with C.R.E.A.M. (which to be honest, they played way too fast), then Shame on a Brother and finally their own version of a classic track which they recast as EMN Ain’t Nothing to Fuck With.

They went to their native Cali and made a march out of J Dilla’s Last Donut, and after Gin and Juice, tackled a second Snoop Dogg number, Gz and Hustlaz, shifting from bouncy flute funk to an ominous cinematic minor-key outro. As the show hit a peak, Kim revealed that this live set reflected his response to and eventual bounceback from a series of deaths in his family: it’s not hard to see how hip-hop death fixations and grimness would resonate with him. Beyond that cover of Gin and Juice, the biggest hit with the audience was when the two rappers left the stage, went to the middle of the crowd and dueled without any help from the band. Then again, Vanilla Ice could have gotten a standing O out of this crowd. Here’s hoping that EMN get better sound here the next time around – or play the  main Apollo stage, where the sonics are reliably excellent.