New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: film music

Darkly Carnivalesqe, Mary Lou Williams-Inspired Themes From Frank Carlberg and Gabriel Bolaños

This is not to imply in any way that the lockdown has been anything other than Hitlerian evil, but it’s forced everybody to think outside the box. We’re now finding out how far outside the box artists have pushed themselves in the past year. One who’s explored unexpected territory is pianist Frank Carlberg, whose phantasmagorical new electroacoustic album of Mary Lou Williams-inspired microtonal music, Charity and Love, a collaboration with Gabriel Bolaños is streaming at Bandcamp.

Carlberg has always had a carnivalesque side, and is a connoisseur of noir, but this is arguably his creepiest record yet. It seems here that his piano is processed to evoke bell-like microtones. Sometimes the effect is akin to an electric piano, sometimes a toy piano, sometimes a carillon. Either way, the effect is persistently disquieting.

Bumping around under the lid, channeling darkly ambered blues, some of the phantasmagoria he so excels at has echoes of stride and boogie and a little crazed tomcat-on-the-keys noise in the album’s title track. Meanwhile, a loop of voices draws closer and closer to the center, becomes painfully unlistenable and fortunately is not a portent for what’s on the rest of the record.

Mary Lou, Mary Blue is a stunningly uneasy, carillonesqe piece that soon goes up and down the funhouse staircase in odd intervals that will keep you on your toes no matter how agitated or woozily surreal the multitracks become. Zodiac Impressions has an echoey, strange web of flitting, rhythmic gestures and Monklike riffs twisted into microtonal shapes, rumbling diesel motor sonics contrasting with the chimes far overhead, decaying to a creepy, sepulchral outro

A brief, murky interlude introduces Mary’s Aries, one of the starker pieces here, its spare, steadily rhythmic, chiming phrases and cascades imbued with the album’s warpiest tonalities. The duo follow that with Broken Stomp, a delicate, marionettish strut encroached on by loops and cascades. The way Bolaños layers the echoes, one long phrase following another, will give you chills.

Big Sky, Dark Clouds is a haunting Lynchian stroll that Carlberg builds emphatically and lets drift away forlornly at the end. Williams’ quote about “Whenever there’s a strong beat, people always want to degrade the music by calling it jazz,” is priceless in context.

The two follow Hop, Skip, Jump, a lively gremlin of a miniature, with the spacious, lingering chords of Water Under the Bridge, strongly evoking the otherworldly, eerie coda of Messiaen’s Quartet For the End of Time. The two close with Waving Goodbye, Carlberg opening with the album’s most darkly carnivalesque, chromatic melody, then taking a twistedly wistful turn that branches off into bizarre multitracks before the piano brings the poignancy back. In a strange way, this makes a good companion piece to Chris Pattishall‘s reinvention of Williams’ Zodiac Suite.

Lingering Mystery and Lynchian Sonics From the Royal Arctic Institute

If you have to hang a label on the Royal Arctic Institute, you could call them a cinematic surf band. They have a Lynchian side, a jazzy side and also a space-surf side. Their latest album Sodium Light is streaming at Bandcamp.

The opening number, the vampy Prince of Wisconsin has an easygoing sway, Gramercy Arms keyboardist Carl Bagaly’s bubbly Rhodes piano giving way to bandleader John Leon’s reverby twang and then grit. The distant wistfulness in Christmases At Sea is visceral, the jangly mingle of guitar over David Motamed’s tense bass pulse and Lyle Hysen’s muted drums.

We Begin on Familiar Ground is a real chiller: the big bite at the beginning is just a hint of what’s to come over spare, creepy, mutedly lingering ambience. The trick ending, and the searing guitar solo from And the Wiremen‘s Lynn Wright, are just plain awesome. Is this a lockdown parable? Who knows: the album was recorded clandestinely somewhere in the tri-state area last year.

The fourth track, Different in Sodium Light is a return to balmy Summer Place calm, Wright adding just a tinge of ominousness with his elegant solo. The final cut, Tomorrowmorrowland is the closest thing here to And the Wiremen’s ominous, Morricone-esque southwestern gothic, with a slashing organ break. On a very short list of rock albums released in 2021 so far, this is one of the best.. And it’s available on cassette!

A Picturesque, Psychedelic New Instrumental Soul Album From the Menahan Street Band

Of all the oldschool soul groups that followed Sharon Jones’ ascendancy out of New York in the mid-zeros, Menahan Street Band were the most distinctive, psychedelic and also the darkest. Nobody did noir soul in New York like these guys. And they didn’t even have a singer. It’s been a long time between albums for them, but that’s because everybody in the band is also involved with other projects, or at least was before the lockdown. Their long-awaited new album The Exciting Sounds of Menahan Street Band lives up to its title and is streaming at Bandcamp.

The opening number, Midnight Morning, sums up how these guys work. It’s a steady oldschool 70s groove, bandleader/multi-instrumentalist Thomas Brenneck’s twinkling keys and sheets of organ over the graceful, understated rhythm section of guest bassist “Bosco Mann” – hmmm, now who could that be – and drummer Homer Steinweiss. But the gently gusting harmonies from Leon Michels’ tenor sax and Dave Guy’s trumpet are more bracing than they are balmy.

Regular bassist Nick Movshon takes over with a spare, trebly hollow-body feel on the second track, Rainy Day Lady, Brenneck’s sparse, eerily Satie-esque piano exchanging with the horns and Michels’ organ as the sun pushes the clouds away. They completely flip the script with The Starchaser, a gritty, tensely cinematic, Morricone-ish tableau driven by Brenneck’s trebly, careening guitar and Michels’ trailing sax lines.

Silkworm rises out of dubwise trip-hop mystery with Brenneck on keening portamento synth along with the horns. Cabin Fever is surreal fuzztone Afrobeat; after that, the band return to enigmatic oldschool slow jam territory with Rising Dawn and its blazing layers of guitar.

The album’s most tantalizingly short interlude is Glovebox Pistol, a slinky desert rock theme in wee-hours deep Brooklyn disguise. Likewise, Queens Highway is a slow, spacious after-midnight miniature.

Michels’ organ swirls, the horns waft and Brenneck’s layers of regal soul chords permeate the next track, Snow Day. Brian Profilio takes over the drums on the cheery, dub-inflected miniature Parlour Trick. Mike Deller’s Farfisa loops and washes filter over a funky strut in The Duke, Ray Mason’s trombone beefing up the brass. Stepping Through Shadow has a wistful tiptoe pulse and elegant Stylistics jazz chords.

Devil’s Respite is the album’s best track, a darkly anthemic vamp with couple of unexpected tarpit interludes before the brass kick back in again. They close the record with There Was a Man, a slow, fond 12/8 ballad without words with the feel of a late 60s classic soul instrumental like The Horse. You’ll see this on the best albums of 2021 page here – and there’s going to be one. Spring is coming to New York right now, and it’s about time!

Suspensefully Cinematic, High-Spirited New Classical Works From the CCCC Grossman Ensemble

The Chicago Center for Contemporary Composition’s Grossman Ensemble is the brainchild of Augusta Read Thomas. Her game plan was to create a group which could intensely workshop material with composers rather than simply holding a few rehearsals and then throwing a concert. Their album Fountain of Time – streaming at youtube – is contemporary classical music as entertainment: a dynamic series of new works, many of them with a cinematic suspense and tingly moments of noir. Percussionists Greg Beyer and John Corkill, in particular, have a field day with this.

They open with Shulamit Ran’s picturesque Grand Rounds. Oboe player Andrew Nogal, clarinetist Katherine Schoepflin Jimoh, pianist Daniel Pesca and harpist Ben Melsky get to send a shout-out to Messiaen and then a salute to Bernard Herrmann’s Hitchcock film scores. Terse accents from horn player Matthew Oliphant and saxophonist Taimur Sullivan mingle with the acerbic textures of the Spektral Quartet: violinists Clara Lyon and Maeve Feinberg, violist Doyle Armbrust and cellist Russell Rolen. Furtiveness ensues and then the chase is on! The ending is anything but what you would expect. Told you this was fun!

Anthony Cheung’s triptych Double Allegories begins with sudden strikes amid suspenseful, wafting ambience, heavy on the percussion: Herrmann again comes strongly to mind. The midsection is built around a deliciously otherworldly series of microtonal, stairstepping motives, subtle echo effects and ice-storm ambience. The finale comes across as a series of playful but agitated poltergeist conversations….or intermittent stormy bursts. Or both, Tim Munro’s flute and the percussion front and center.

David Dzubay conducts his new work, PHO, which is not a reference to Vietnamese cuisine: the title stands for Potentially Hazardous Objects. The ensemble work every trick in the suspense film playbook – creepy bongos, shivery swells, tense bustles, pizzicato strings like high heels on concrete, breathy atmospherics and hints of a cynical Mingus-esque boogie – for playfully maximum impact. It’s the album’s most animated and strongest piece.

Tonia Ko‘s Simple Fuel was largely improvised while the ensemble were workshopping it; it retains that spontaneity with all sorts of extended technique, pulsing massed phrasing in an AACM vein, conspiratorial clusters alternating with ominous microtonal haze.

A second triptych, by David “Clay” Mettens, winds up the record. Stain, the first segment, bristles with defiantly unresolved microtones, gremlins in the highs peeking around corners and hints of Indian carnatic riffage. Part two, Bloom/Moon pairs deviously syncopated marimba against slithery strings. The textures and clever interweave in Rain provide the album with a vivid coda. Let’s hope we hear more from this group as larger ensembles begin recording and playing again: day after day, the lockdown is unraveling and the world seems to be returning to normal.

Angelica Olstad Captures the Terror and Alienation of the First Few Months of the Lockdown

Pianist Angelica Olstad ls one of the few New York artists to be able to put the tortuous first several months of the lockdown to creative use. Her new solo release Transmute – streaming at Bandcamp – is a haunting, often downright chilling, rather minimalist recording of a series of themes from four French Romantic works. Olstad reimagines them as a suite illustrating the terror and isolation of the beginning of the most hideously repressive year in American history. And it isn’t over yet. In the meantime we owe a considerable debt to Olstad for how indelibly and lyrically she has portrayed it.

Rather than playing any of the four pieces here all the way through, she deconstructs them, usually to find their most menacing or macabre themes. Then she pulls those even further apart, or loops them. Erik Satie is the obvious reference point. The first and most troubled segment is based on The Fountain of the Acqua Paola from Charles Griffes’ Roman Sketches, Op. 7. It turns out to be a creepy, loopy arpeggio matched by skeletal lefthand, with light electronic touches and snippets of field recordings. Yes, some of them are sirens. A simple, icy upper-register melody develops, then recedes, the menacing music-box melody returning at the end.

Track two, Death + Sourdough is a mashup of a handful of themes from the Ravel Sonatine, at first reducing it to a rising series of Satie-esque snippets. Then Olstad hits an elegant, ornate series of chords, but once again loops them. She returns with an even more troubled, resonant minimalism.

An Awakening, based on the Oiseaux Triste interlude from Ravel’s Miroirs has spacious glitter over spare lefthand, distant sirens and crowd noise from Black Lives Matter protests panning the speakers

The closest thing to a straightforward performance of the original is her steady, rippling, picturesque take of Cygne sur l’eau from Gabriel Faure’s Mirages; she titles it Brave New World. Here and only here does the music grow warmer and offer a glimmer of hope, tentative as she seems to see it. Let’s hope that’s an omen for days to come. If she’s brave, maybe we’ll be lucky to see Olstad in concert somewhere in New York this year.

Warmly Minimalist, Oceanically-Inspired Electroacoustic Piano Themes From Kumi Takahara

Go out to watch the ocean just as the sun is about to slip under the horizon and you’ll get a good idea of what keyboardist Kumi Takahara’s gently rippling new album See-Through – streaming at Bandcamp – is all about. Her pensive, elegant themes are minimalist to the core: she most definitely does not waste notes. Philip Glass seems to be an influence. This is a great album for winding down or meditation.

She opens the album with Artegio, a warmly minimalist, simple major-key piano piece with subtle ambient electronic touches. Roll, the second track, has variations on a catchy, ratchetingly circling piano riff and what sounds like a wistful melodica in places. Nostalgia is even simpler and just as loopy, Takahara moving methodically up and down the scale as echoey, hypnotically ambient phrases drift into the foreground.

Tide, with its intricate web of string orchestration, is even more hypnotic but also majestic as it swells and brightens. Chime, on the other hand, has more distinct disquiet (and a droll reference to a very famous clock). The strings return, rising with a stark resonance against the bell-like piano, in Kai-kou. 

Layers of wordless vocals permeate Chant along with the strings and sheer simplicity of the piano. Takahara runs subtle, increasingly wistful variations on a four-note riff over what sounds like a viola drone in Sea. She closes the album with Log, well over seven minutes of hazy horizontality and then what turns out to be the album’s most anthemic interlude, punctuated by gentle vocalizing, sparse piano and light electronics. There are also a couple of remixes here that don’t really add anything.

Intriguingly Moody, Individualistic Piano Instrumentals From Alexandra Stréliski

On her album Inscape – streaming at Bandcamp – Montreal pianist Alexandra Stréliski plays wistful chamber pop songs without words, often multitracking herself for textural contrasts. This kind of thing has been done before, although stylistically Streliski is much more classically oriented than early rock keyboard instrumentalists like Floyd Cramer. She sometimes uses folky guitar voicings; her songs can be very catchy. Catchy enough to became a gold record on her home turf – if this is what gold records were in 2020, it’s a good omen.

The opening number, Plus Tôt (meaning “soon”) hints at where she’s going to go later in the album, but this folk-pop theme, with its steady triplets, doesn’t move far from one place and isn’t one of her strongest numbers. You can start your playlist – and hum along – with The Quiet Voice, a gently strolling pastoral pop tune.

Par le Fenêtre de Theo (Through Theo’s Window) is where Streliski really puts the rubber to the road: it’s a big, melancholy rainy-day anthem in classical disguise. In Ellipse, she maintains the pensive ambience more spaciously, with light electronic touches. Then she goes back to terse, moody folk-pop with the waltz Changing Winds.

The simply titled Interlude is a study in persistent, loopy minimalism. Blind Vision has a recurrent reference to the Exorcist Theme, but it’s more just plain sad than creepy. The subtle variations of Burnout Fugue – great title, huh? – have a surprising, intricately rippling energy and precision,

As she often does here, she moves a simple bassline around beneath elegant broken chords, tersely emphatic riffs and a Beatles quote in Overturn, the album’s longest track. She closes the record with the more pop-themed Revient le Jour (Daylight Comes Once More) and then Materials, a robotic attempt at glitchy electronic sounds. Other than that, somewhere there’s an arthouse movie director who needs music like this.

A Lavish, Delightfully Phantasmagorical Anne LeBaron Career Retrospective

It was tempting to save composer/harpist Anne LeBaron’s lavish new double album Unearthly Delights – streaming at Spotify – for this coming October’s annual monthlong Halloween celebration here. But waiting that long would only deprive you of its many wicked treats. New classical music has seldom been so darkly and playfully entertaining.

Flickering, increasingly agitated ghosts from Pasha Tseitlin’s violin and apocalyptic waves from Nic Gerpe’s piano pervade the first number, Fissure, inspired by the crack that eventually brought down Edgar Allan Poe’s House of Usher. 

Playing, narrating and rattling around, pianist Mark Robson turns in a colorful rendition of Los Murmullos, a phantasmagorical setting of text from Juan Rulfo’s horror novel Pedro Páramo. A second piano-and-violin piece, Devil in the Belfry blends the otherworldliness of Federico Mompou with scampering phantasmagoria, illustrating the diabolical clock chimes from another Poe short story, an all-too-familiar narrative of conformity and its crushing consequences. LeBaron couldn’t have chosen a more appropriate historical moment to release it.

Bassoonists Julie Feves and Jon Stehney prowl and lurk and flurry through the electroacoustic, Hieronymus Bosch-inspired Julie’s Garden of Unearthly Delights. Quick, somebody tell ICE bassoon maven Rebekah Heller, whose collection of bassoon duo pieces is unsurpassed!

The album contains two versions of the dynamic, reflective, sometimes eerily pentatonic solo harp work Poem for Doreen, a tribute to harpist Doreen Gehry Nelson. Alison Bjorkedal’s is more elegantly legato; the composer’s own is somewhat more percussive and lively.

Mark Menzies plays the stark, steady, imaginatively ornamented Bach-inspired solo violin piece Four, as well as its graphic-scored shadow piece, Fore. His interpretation of the latter has more slash and a lot more space, and fits right in with the darkest material here.

The album’s second disc begins with Is Money Money, soprano Kirsten Ashley Wiest joined by clarinetist Chris Stoutenborough, bass clarinetist Jim Sullivan,violist Erik Rynearson, cellist Charlie Tyler and bassist Eric Shetzen. The title reflects a Gertrude Stein quote with serious relevance in a year where the lockdowners are trying to crash the US economy via hyperinflation. Musically, this allusively boleroesque, picturesque piece is the album’s most cartoonish interlude, but also one of its most sinister.

Stehney returns for the solo work After a Dammit to Hell, a genial salute to a now-shuttered Alabama barbecue joint. Gerpe plays the impressionistically glittering Creación de las Aves for solo piano, inspired by the surrealist art of Remedios Varo. Soprano Stephanie Aston and baritone Andy Dwan deliver the album’s epic triptych, A – Zythum, backed by Linnea Powell on viola, Nick Deyoe on guitar and banjo and Cory Hills on vibraphone and percussion. This dissociatively layered, Robert Ashley-esque piece provides a strange and dramatic coda to this lavish and eclectic mix of material. 

Poignant, Tersely Crystallized Songs Without Words From Antonija Pacek

Pianist Antonija Pacek plays vivid, often haunting songs without words. Her new album Forever – streaming at Spotify – draws on the highest of the High Romantic, but tersely and poignantly. Her righthand typically carries a vocal line, the left either spare chords, arpeggios or a bassline. If you were the pianist in an artsy rock band, this album is what you would give the rest of the crew to learn. Any third-year student can play every track here. There are no solos, no dynamic shifts, just melody – and an invitation to write lyrics. One can only wonder what a great songwriter like Karla Rose or Hannah Fairchild could do with this. Every piano teacher should own this album: it’s the best kind of example of this type of music.

A cynic would say that there are a million wannabe youtube stars with sad rainy day solo piano or synthesizer playlists that rip off every classical composer from Bach to Dvorak. But this is a cut above. The first track, Sofia is an absolutely shattering, toweringly angst-fueled requiem without words, Chopin through the prism of 20th century Slavic balladry.

Pacek follows that with If Only Time Allowed, neoromantic righthand over Lynchian lefthand. Gone Young is another requiem, a portrait of someone obviously full of life cut down unexpectedly, and too soon

The title track is a saloony Tom Waits-ish theme. Lullaby has playful Asian allusions, while Light is a neoromantic analogue to the Church’s classic, haunted Bel Air. If Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen had been a neoromantic guy, he would have written Almost Goodbye.

Before the Rain is catchy, minor-key, almost amusingly insistent and youtube-friendly: it could be Yann Tiersen. In Deep Red, Pacek makes a conflicted piano ballad out of Debussy and a little blues. 

Taken on face value, Wanna Dance has to be the most morose pickup line ever written: as sad waltzes go, this is killer. Pacek finally has fun shifting the melody to the lefthand in the stadium-rock theme What’s Waiting for Me. The album’s “secret” track, Before the Storm follows a familiar descending progression, a castle dark, a fortress strong….a melody secret?

A Haunting, Hypnotic Elegy For People of Color Murdered by Police Since 2017

Cinematic postrock soul band Algiers originally released the anti-police violence broadside Cleveland on their 2017 album The Underside of Power. Frontman Franklin James Fisher’s impassioned vocals channeled determination to decimate what’s left of Jim Crow, whether the old or new kinds. In the wake of the protests of the past several months, they’ve released one of the most extended singles of all time, Cleveland 20/20 – streaming at Bandcamp – adding the names of 232 innocent people of color murdered by police since the song first came out. Fisher has also included the victims of the child murders that plagued Atlanta from 1979 to 1981. It is even more of a shock to discover that so many of these people were women.

This is sort of the Shoah single of 2020: haunting, hypnotic and relentless, over a swirling, gothic motorik background that decays to bleakly atmospheric free jazz. And at almost thirty-four minutes, it’s as grimly relevant as music gets in 2020.

There’s also a “vocal mix” that’s about half as long, with just the roll call of the murdered, gospel harmonies and handclaps.