New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: emily wells review

Lincoln Center Out of Doors Kicks Off with an Eclectic Triplebill

[repost from NY Music Daily’s sister blog Lucid Culture]

The Kronos Quartet are celebrating their fortieth anniversary this year, so it makes sense that the beginning of this year’s Lincoln Center Out of Doors festival – one of the best ever – would be centered around that landmark occasion. The world’s most adventurous string quartet have an auspicious new cellist, Sunny Yang (replacing Jeffrey Ziegler) and their usual slate of premieres and new commissions. Even by their paradigm-shifting standards, their world premiere of Ukraine-born Mariana Sadovska’s Chernobyl: The Harvest – with the composer on vocals and harmonium – last night at the Damrosch Park bandshell was nothing short of shattering,  It’s a suite of old Ukrainian folk songs reinvented to commemorate the horror of the 1986 nuclear disaster, which by conservative standards killed at least a million people around the globe and caused the breakup of the Soviet Union, the world’s second-greatest power at the time.

Singing in Ukrainian, Sadovska began it a-cappella with her signature nuance, a thousands shades of angst, sometimes barely breathing, sometimes at a fullscale wail, occasionally employing foreboding microtones to max out the menace. Violist Hank Dutt got the plum assignment of leading the ensemble to join her, Yang’s foreboding drone underpinning a series of up-and-down, Julia Wolfe-esque motives. Quavering, anxious Iranian-tinged flutters from the cello along with violinists David Harrington and John Sherba, astringently atmospheric harmonics and a big, uneasy crescendo, the harmonium going full steam, built to a savagely sarcastic faux circus motif and then a diabolical dance. That was the harvest, a brutal portrayal whose ultimate toll is still unknown. Through a plaintive theme and variations, Sadovska’s voice rose methodically from stunned horror to indignance and wrath: again, the triptych’s final theme, Heaven, appeared to be sarcastic to the extreme, Sadovska determined not to let the calamity slip from memory. Nuclear time forgives much more slowly than time as we experience it: 26 years after the catastrophe, wild mushrooms in Germany – thousands of miles from the disaster scene – remain inedible, contaminated with deadly nuclear toxins.

In a counterintuitive stroke of booking, luminous singer Shara Worden’s kinetic art-rock octet, My Brightest Diamond headlined. They’re like the Eurythmics except with good vocals and good songs – hmmm, that doesn’t leave much, does it? Or like ELO during their momentary lapse into disco, but better. Sh-sh-sh-sh-Shara can get away with referencing herself in a song because she does it with tongue planted firmly in cheek, and because she’s as funny as she can be haunting. She loves props and costumes – a big cardboard moustache and a fez among them, this time out – and draws on a wide-ranging musical drama background. But she saves the drama for when she really needs to take a song over the edge, belting at gale force in contrast to a fat, droll synth bass pulse late in the show. Her lively arrangements rippled through the ensemble of Hideaki Aomori on alto sax, Lisa Raschiatore on clarinet and bass clarinet, CJ Cameriere on trumpet, Michael Davis on trombone and Alex Sopp on flutes, like the early/middle-period Moody Blues as orchestrated by Carl Nielsen. Sopp’s triumphant cadenzas capped off several big crescendos, as did Aomori on the second number, a circus rock song with dixieland flourishes. Worden brought the energy down to pensive for a bit, crooning with a low, ripe, Serena Jost-like intensity and playing Rhodes piano on a hypnotic trip-hop number. Worden switched to minimal but assured electric guitar on a slow, pensive tune and then a warm, gently arpeggiated love song, then to mbira on a similarly hypnotic but bouncier Afro-funk song. “A girl from the country had a dream, and the best place she could think of was here,” Worden beamed to the packed arena as she wound up the night. “We’re living the dream.”

Emily Wells was lost in limbo between the two. The smoky patterns on the kaleidoscopic light show projected behind her on the back of the stage offered more than a hint of the milieu she’s best suited to. It was a cruel if probably unintentional stroke of fate that stuck Wells, a competent singer, between two brilliant ones. Her music is quirky, playful and trippy to the extreme. Wells can be very entertaining to watch, when she’s building songs out of loops, adding layers of vocals, keys and violin, switching between instruments and her mixing board with split-second verve. But as her set – the longest one of the night – went on, it became painfully obvious that she wasn’t doing much more than karaoke. She sang her dubwise, trippy hip-hop/trip-hop/soul mashups in what became a monotonously hazy soul-influenced drawl without any sense of dynamics. Where Sadovska sang of nuclear apocalypse and Worden tersely explored existential themes, the best Wells could do was a Missy Elliott-ish trip-hop paean to Los Angeles. And when she addressed the crowd, Wells seemed lost, veering between a southern drawl and something like an Irish brogue. But the audience LOVED her, and gave her the most applause of anyone on the bill.

Lincoln Center Out of Doors is phenomenal this year: the Kronos Quartet will be there tomorrow and then Sunday night. The full calendar is here.

Emily Wells’ Other Mama

If you’re a big fan of older bands, you’ve probably got your hands on a few of their demos. If you’re too young to remember the major label era, a demo was a rough, usually acoustic version of a song recorded on the cheap for the sake of producers and label people, typically to help familiarize studio personnel in preparation for the final studio version. Some of the songs on violinist Emily Wells’ new album Mama (The Acoustic Recordings), which reprise the tracks on her 2012 album by the same name, sound like demos; others play up Wells’ fondness for low-key Americana, by contrast to the studio album’s high-tech, hip hop-tinged production. Wells is playing Lincoln Center Out of Doors on Thursday, July 25 at around 7 on a fantastic bill opening for My Brightest Diamond and then the Kronos Quartet, who are celebrating 40 years in business with a new cellist and a new Chernobyl-themed collaboration with haunting Carpathian folk chanteuse Mariana Sadovska.

Passenger, the opening track, is sparse and skeletal but builds to a catchy singalong chorus that ends up being hard to resist. LIke several of the songs here, it doesn’t miss the trip-hop production it eventually would be saddled with in the studio: more than anything, this album reveals Wells to be a lot more compelling as whispery Americana songstress than white Missy Elliott.

Darlin reminds of Linda Draper’s recent adventures in Americana, albeit a lot more quietly. Its gentle acoustic guitar and vocals drenched in reverb like pretty much everything here (what little violin there is on this album is usually sparsely plucked pizzicato), Los Angeles sounds like a wispier Cat Power. Having heard the polished studio version of No Good, it’s easy to see how it could go in a woozy trip-hop direction – but the stripped-down version is better, showing its 1950s doo-wop roots.

Likewise, Johnny Cash’s Mama’s House, with its subdued folkie unease. Interestingly, the wispy Xanax blues version of Mama’s Gonna Give You Love doesn’t offer any hint of the soul groove the studio version launches into. The same with Let Your Guard Down and its distant, keening slide guitar: though the lush, early-70s soul production of the studio version is pretty spot-on, this is a lot more intense, Wells doing more with less.

The most classically-influenced song on Mama is Fire Song: here, it’s a dusky, dreamy folk-pop ballad. The acoustic version of Dirty Sneakers, the most blatantly commercial Missy Elliott-ish cut on that album, is pretty hilarious, almost a country parody of what it turned out to be. And on album, Piece of It has a surreal dubwise atmosphere, which actually makes sense considering the acoustic Cocteau Twins dreaminess of this take.

Some people will hear Wells’ vocals and will think, oh god, another languid Prozacked-out Lana Del Rey wannabe, but a closer listen will dispel that notion. Where Mama was a smoke session of overdubs and thumpy electronics, this an album of nocturnes, something to send you drifting away to somewhere unknown as the sun goes over the horizon.

Trippy Downtempo Atmospherics from Emily Wells

It isn’t every day that someone popular enough to get a Bowery Ballroom gig appears on this page. Then again, not everything that’s popular is stupid. Emily Wells is a prime example. She’s got a new album out, simply titled Mama; her shtick is that she creates intricately trippy, swirling atmospheric pop all by herself on violin, using multiple loops and a million digital effects. Goldfrapp is the obvious comparison, although Wells downplays the vocals here: lyrics and voice take a backseat to the atmospherics. Where Alison Goldfrapp plays a Bond Girl, Wells wears a few faces here, sometimes a come-hither hip-hop vixen, sometimes a country chanteuse, sometimes a goth girl. Whichever direction she goes in, she typically doesn’t go over the top. In most cases, songs based on loops tend to be simple and hypnotic, which makes sense considering that the simpler the underlying riffs or changes are, the less complicated it is to add additional sonic layers on top as they come around again and again – especially if you’re playing them live as Wells does in concert. So there aren’t many surprises here tunewise, in the beginning at least: simple cake, artsy icing. Many of the songs segue into each other here, enhancing the psychedelic feel.

The opening track, Piece of It has Wells’ swaying, surreal muted staccato plucking contrasting with echoey, almost dubwise sustained lines. It gets dreamier and dreamier as the layers of echoey vocals and pinging, high bell-like tones make their way in. Dirty Sneakers and Underwear has shuffling drums and echoey atmospherics which conceal what’s essentially a hip-hop/”R&B” song. It gets creepier and more gothic as it goes along, leaving the pop vibe behind. Sepulchral accordion-like tones and swirly funeral organ pervade Passenger, a trip-hop number, followed by Mama’s Gonna Give You Love, the simplest and most direct track here with its minor-key soul/gospel groove.

Johnny Cash’s Mama’s House is just plain weird, a trip-hop country song with vocal harmonies via a pitch pedal and eventually some rippling banjo – does she play that? Let Your Guard Down goes for a Billie Holiday vocal, the music reaching for a lush late 60s/early 70s orchestrated soul atmosphere that picks up with genuine majesty as the drums rumble and crash. Fire Song has an only slightly restrained ornateness, like something off the live, orchestrated Portishead album: it’s the most overtly classical piece of music here. The last three tracks are a woozy, dubwise trip-hop tune with blippy horn-like patches flitting through the mix; a trip-hop take on delta blues (that actually works!!); and an echoey stab at Nashville gothic.

Who is the audience for this? People who like to end the day with a blunt; fans of dub and trip-hop; and probably because of marketing, trendoids. That seems to be the audience she’s been targeted to, and that’s too bad, because it would be sad if she ended up ghettoized with the rest of the wannabes in the Pitchfork crowd.