New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: Estelle Bajou

A Characteristically Creepy New Album From the Great Kotorino

You could make a very strong case that Kotorino are the best New York band of the last ten years. Combining circus rock and latin noir, with frequent detours into gothic Americana, their sound grew more lavishly orchestrated as the group expanded. Their new album Sea Monster, streaming at Bandcamp, brings the band full circle to their earliest years in quietly uneasy parlor rock, a vehicle for frontman/guitarist Jeff Morris’ allusively grim narratives. Kotorino don’t have any shows coming up, but Charming Disaster – Morris and singer/uke player Ellia Bisker’s devilish murder ballad side project – are playing Pine Box Rock Shop this Friday night, Feb 16 at 11:30 PM.

“Like a broken calculator, they tried, and tried, but never got her number,” Morris and Bisker harmonize over an unexpectedly funky strut as the new album’s opening track, Hell Yeah, gets underway. The horn section kicks in, then there’s one of the misterioso interludes the band love so much. As usual, there are as many levels of meaning here, a sideways shout-out to an enterprising girl in the 21st century Manhattan gig economy:

Downtown to the tarpits
Where the hedge funds employ mystics
She said it’s been real in the abstract,
But I want to break out of this contract

Now That I’m Dead, a slowly swaying, crescendoing soul ballad, is next. The glockenspiel against Morris’ grittily clanging old Gibson hollowbody is a typical, neat Kotorino touch. The band shift between a muted, suspenseful pulse and bright, horn-spiced flair in the increasingly ominous travelogue Daddy’s on the Road: all those doppler effects are irresistibly fun.

Rags to Riches is classic Kotorino, a creepy circus waltz: without spoiling the plot, the theme is be careful what you wish for. Likewise, Breakdown has a darkly jaunty, brassy oldtimey swing: it’s part escape anthem, part dayjob hell story.

Too Bad (You Haven’t Eyes Like Us Owls) is the album’s most haunting track, a brooding noir mambo ablaze with brass, pouncing along on the slashes from Morris’ guitar, with a succession of surreal vocal cameos from the women in the band (who also comprise violinists Molly White and Estelle Bajou, tuba players Jeanie Schroder and Liz Prince, and singing saw player Caroline Ritson).

Patricia Santos’ mournful cello infuses the brooding, metaphorically charged waltz Planes Land:

The higher you go
The thinner the air
Head in the clouds
Spoils the view

Right Way Wrong has an emphatically jagged latin soul groove that rises to a moodily lush chorus, an allusively imagistic criminals-on-the-run tale with a cynically gruff Stefan Zeniuk bass sax solo. Fall Asleep But Don’t Let Me Go isn’t the only shipwreck tale Morris has written, but it’s the gloomiest, rising out of hazy ambience to a towering, 6/8 sway and then back, with an absolutely delicious contrapuntal vocal arrangement.

The title cut closes the album, Mike Brown;s chugging quasi-ska bassline giving way to a surreal, tropically psychedelic interlude with coy allusions to the Beatles and maybe the Boomtown Rats. Name another band alive who can do all this and a lot more in the span of just this many songs, You’ll see this here on the best albums of 2018 page at the end of the year.

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.