New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: film

Director Ted Bafaloukos’ Posthumous Photo Book Captures the Turmoil and Glory of 1970s Reggae

Ted Bafaloukos’ 1979 film Rockers is iconic in reggae circles. Its soundtrack captures many of the foremost figures from the golden age of roots reggae at the peak of their powers. The movie became one of that year’s fifty highest grossing films. And it was almost never made.

The late director and photographer reveals the drama, the turbulence, passion, and ever-present danger surrounding the artistic crucible of the mid-70s Jamaican music scene in his richly illustrated coffee table book, ROCKERS: Ted Bafaloukos + 1970s New York + Kingston + On Set Mayhem = The Making of Reggae’s Most Iconic Film, out this year from Gingko Press.

The Greek-born Bafaloukos got his start at the Rhode Island School of Design. His steamship captain father had sent him there after discovering, while docked in Providence, that the school drew students from as faraway as California. The younger Bafaloukos earned media accolades for his photos while still in college. But by 1978 he was struggling as a freelancer, largely supported by his wife’s $78-a-week sweatshop paycheck, sharing a loft at the corner of Varick and Franklin Streets with several friends.

He’d discovered reggae a few years earlier and fallen in love with it after seeing a show by melodica player Augustus Pablo and his band at the Tropical Cove, a club located above Gertie’s Discount Store in Brooklyn. He intuitively grasped the connection between the communal esthetic of reggae and the folk music he’d been immersed in at community celebrations as a child in the Aegean island village of Apikia.

Aided by his new friends from the New York reggae scene, he traveled to Jamaica and decided then and there to make a reggae movie, despite having neither script nor cast. Bafaloukos enlisted several New York friends as production crew, and a hippie neighbor with money to be the producer.

Bafaloukos’ photos from his initial expeditions are a goldmine for reggae fans. The most choice shots are black-and-white. Singer Kiddus I, with record producer Jack Ruby behind him, sits slit-eyed with both a cheat sheet and a spliff in hand at a recording session: it’s clear that this is all live, with no iso booths. A young, thin Burning Spear perches triumphantly atop the ruins of a slavery-era jail in his native St. Ann’s Bay. Jah Spear (who also appeared in the film) pops up again and again, most memorably backstage with an equally rail-thin Patti Smith, laughing it up. And Big Youth is captured on his signature motorbike on a Kingston street, showing off his jewel-embedded teeth

In full color, there’s dub pioneer Lee “Scratch” Perry in his ramshackle, rundown original Black Ark Studio before he burned it down: from Bafaloukos’ description of the setup and gear, Perry’s engineering genius becomes all the more astonishing. A series of 1975 portraits capture Bob Marley on Sixth Avenue near West 8th Street in Manhattan. There’s owl-glassed, bearded folk music legend and experimental filmmaker Harry Smith with Burning Spear drummer (and eventual star of the film) Leroy “Horsemouth” Wallace. Impressively, the book’s candid photos far outnumber stills from the movie.

Which is basically The Bicycle Thief transposed to Jamaica, with tons of classic songs and a cast comprising the most colorful people the filmmaker had met while traveling across the island. “For those who think that movies get made in the editing room, Rockers is not a case in point,” he avers. As he tells it, the film ended up being even more highly improvised than originally planned.

The problem with crowdsourcing your cast is that a bigger crowd comes with it. It ended up taking Bafaloukos more than a couple nickels to buy his way out of many pickles, several brushes with death and, as he tells it, a mutiny by the movie’s two stars, who had held out for more money. Considering how hard both cast and crew partied when they weren’t working, and how many challenges – several at gunpoint – they had to overcome, it’s a miracle they were able to finish it.

And considering how breakneck – literally – the pace of the filming was, some of the most memorable moments in the narrative are the asides. We find out that Earl Chin, who in 1975 had not yet become the legendary host of Rockers TV, is a crazy driver: gee, big surprise. The movie’s crucial set piece – a very fickle, used motorbike – ends up being delivered by none other than the Cool Ruler, Gregory Isaacs. And Bafaloukos recounts the priceless moment at Bob Marley’s Peace Concert where Jacob Miller leaps from the stage, goes up to a cop guarding the Prime Minister and offers him a spiff. When the cop declines, Miller steals the guy’s helmet and finishes his set wearing it.

What Bafaloukos never mentions is residuals. He ended up retiring to a villa on the Aegean. it would be interesting to know how much Horsemouth, his co-star “Dirty Harry” Hall, the Montego Bay mystic named Higher, or the Reverend Roach and his A.M.E choir, to name a few of the cast members, came away with.

Psychedelic Rock Icon With Inspired Band Picks Up Gloriously Where He Left Off

What can a person do at night in a place that suddenly became the City That Always Sleeps?

You could pick up your instrument, or sit down at it, and write something.

If you gravitate toward big, ornate sounds, you could tune in to the New York Philharmonic’s live webcast.

Or you could watch James Tonkin‘s new concert film Nick Mason’s Saucerful of Secrets: Live at the Roadhouse. It hasn’t hit VOD yet, but the audio is streaming at Spotify. This isn’t just your ordinary Pink Floyd cover band: “There’s so many thousands, all playing the same four albums,” guitarist Gary Kemp smirks. “The first thing that will be really telling will be to see how they change their setlists as a result of us doing this!”

What differentiates these guys from the wannabes is that they play exclusively pre-Dark Side material from the Syd Barrett and early David Gilmour eras. They also managed to convince Floyd’s iconic drummer to join them. After a few well-received shows, they had this frequently glorious concert immortalized, at a venue where the Barrett edition of the band were the first group to play.

To open the show, Telecaster player Kemp picks hard on his low E string, second Tele player Lee Harris launches into the evil, chromatic descending riff of the instrumental Interstellar Overdrive, then bassist Guy Pratt – playing a snappy Rickenbacker – joins the song along with organist Dom Beken and the bandleader…and they’re off. In general, throughout the concert, the music has a tighter, somewhat lighter-fingered pulse than the reckless abandon of the Syd Barrett era. The songs also tend to be more ornate, but in a lot of ways the additional layers raise the psychedelic factor. Who wants to hear a band play something exactly as it was recorded, anyway?

Jim Parsons’ classic rock-doc production is purist: lots of fretboard close-ups, panning the stage and then back. The sound mix is tastefully oldschool as well. To his infinite credit, the bandleader is toward the back, just as he was throughout Pink Floyd’s tenure: he’s always been a guy to let the sound out of his kit instead of trying to bang something into it. And what a big kit it is. One of his bandmates remarks that even in his seventies, Mason’s vigor is “terrifying.” Maybe his subtlety has something to do with that.

Tellingly, it takes two guitarists to replicate what both Barrett and Gilmour did, with plenty of noise and echo, closer to the former’s style than the latter’s anguished, Hendrix-inspired existential screams. Likewise, Beken has a Rick Wright-sized array of textures at his disposal, orchestrating the music with more of an overtly trippy ripple and twinkle than just the vast deep-space textures the late, great Pink Floyd keyboardist constructed so expertly.

The group segue into Astronomy Domine after the night’s opening jagged surrealism: this song is a little more bluesy than the original, but practically just as crazed in places, the bass obviously higher than that instrument typically was recorded in 1967 when Roger Waters played it. Lucifer Sam and Arnold Layne seem a little fast. and rotely digital; yet that same approach improves Fearless, underscoring that otherwise gentle pastoral pop tune’s druggy narrative.

The woozy instrumentals Obscured by Clouds and When You’re In seem odd choices, little more than a platform for Kemp’s simple slide work. As does Vegetable Man, considering what happened to Barrett. In that context, the “why can’t we reach the sun” refrain in Remember a Day has special poignancy, a cautionary tale to the extreme.

While Kemp stays on key more than Waters did singing If, the gloomily sunbaked madness anthem, Waters’ acid-damaged vocals are stil missed. As are the horns and orchestra of Atom Heart Mother – at least we get about seven minutes of the majestic main theme, emphasis on the macabre.

The proto-metal of The Nile Song holds up well (and foreshadows a famous Johnny Rotten lyric). The alien-encounter anthem Let There Be More Light has an almost gleefully grim intensity; likewise, the bulked-up version of the rarely played Gilmour narrative Childhood’s End is more richly dark.

The show’s centerpiece, the menacingly raga-influenced Set the Controls For the Heart of the Sun, has a literally breathtaking vastness, Mason having a wryly good time with his huge gongs and then his mallets on the toms. The band pick up the pace with the hauntingly bittersweet See Emily Play, romp through Barrett’s mid 60s Carnaby Street pop tune Bike, then hammer their way through One of These Days, Waters’ strobe-lit repeaterbox instrumental from the Meddle album.

Fueled by Beken’s funereal chromatics and enveloping, smoky echoes, the band go way down the rabbit hole with A Saucerful of Secrets and end the show triumphantly with Point Me At the Sky. The film also contains a few snippets of live footage from the Barrett years plus a bit of context from individual band members. Who would have thought that in 2020, anyone would attempt, let alone succeed in revisiting these classic sounds?

Iconic Violinist Alicia Svigals Brings Her High-Energy Erudition to a Familiar East Village Haunt

Pretty much every Thursday night, there’s a dance party in the spacious social hall at the Town & Village Synagogue on 14th St. just east of Second Ave. For over a decade, the New York Klezmer Series has featured a vast range of music from across the Jewish diaspora, the connecting thread being energy. And it isn’t just the same old shtetl, either: the groups tend to be on the original side, with string ensembles, brass bands, the occasional rock act or Yiddish song night. Showtime is 8 PM; cover is $15. There’s also a dance lesson beforehand and a jam afterward for those who want to shell out for the whole megilla.

This Thursday, March 12 promises to be exceptionally good since the woman widely considered to be the world’s foremost klezmer violinist, Alicia Svigals, is joining forces with similarly exhilarating accordionist Patrick Farrell. Svigals is fresh off an absolutely delightful show late last month, when she teamed up with a frequent collaborator, pianist Donald Sosin for a live score to E.A. Dupont’s 1923 German silent film The Ancient Law at Temple Ansche Chesed on the Upper West.

Beyond the movie – which is very sweet, and progressive even by the Weimar era’s avant garde standards – what was most impressive was what a fantastic classical violinist Svigals is. Following the film’s narrative, the music begins in a little village somewhere in the Pale (Sosin starts out on accordion, appropriately), then suddenly shifts to cosmopolitan mid-19th century Vienna. That’s where the plaintive dirges and bristling freylachs suddenly make way for melancholy Schubert ballads, lively Mozart and, for verisimilitude, a few detours into Johan Strauss cheesiness.

It was there that the split-second change in Svigals’ intonation and attack was most striking. All of a sudden those bracing overtones, and doublestops, and glissandos disappeared in favor of a crystalline, legato approach…and then made a welcome return when the plotline shifted back to the ghetto. Those old Jewish folk tunes have survived for a reason: they’re just plain gorgeous. Beyond the action onscreen, the moments when the duo were obviously jamming out solos over familiar minor-key changes were arguably the evening’s most adrenalizing, entertaining passages. That kind of intensity is most likely what’s on the bill for this week’s show, with a focus on wedding and party music from the early 20th century catalog of musicologist Wolff Kostakovsky.

Svigals and Sosin have been touring their live movie score along with a screening  since shortly after the film was rescued from oblivion, digitized and sequenced to match the original print during what must have been a daunting restoration process. Without giving too much away, the main story concerns a rabbi’s son who runs off to the big city to become an actor. Tensions between father and son, tradition and modernity simmer and bubble, but the movie is basically a comedy: the moment where the rabbi finally picks up the forbidden volume of Shakespeare that the fiilm’s Falstaff character has smuggled in is priceless. Could it be that dad is kind of jealous of his son? Maybe that particular apple didn’t fall so far from the tree after all. No spoilers here.

This Year’s Lincoln Center Out of Doors Opens With a Kung Fu Movie and a Hip-Hop Icon

This past evening’s opening concert at this year’s Lincoln Center Out of Doors Festival was a score to a kung-fu movie.

It was a really good one, too. One can only imagine the kind of synchronicity involved in the Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA just being back from a national tour performing (and mixing) his lush, eclectic electroacoustic soundtrack to the 1978 Shaw Brothers martial arts classic The 36th Chamber of Shaolin. It’s populist to the core, a vengeful tale of citizens brutalized and massacred by the shock troops of a psychotic tyrant. The villain and his minions round up innocent shopkeepers, massacre students en masse and maintain a stranglehold on civil rights. How little the world changes, huh?

Beyond the flick’s sudden and sometimes bewildering jump cuts, what’s most memorable is the training the Shaolin monks go through on their way to kung fu dharma. They strengthen their arms with a water bucket drill, swords attached to their waist and pointed upward lest they let their arms waver. Likewise, a spin-the-wheel training installation delivers the same bloody slash to anyone who isn’t twirling his spear in perfect circular motion. The hero’s teachers never fail to be awed and offer praise, but the bloodstains remain. Is this a message that sadism from the top down pervades the most remote corners of society? Or were the filmmakers simply rolling with a series of gory thrills?

At the Wu-Tang Clan’s peak, it was always a mystery how much of RZA’s signature stormy cinematic backdrops were simply clever sampling, and how much was actually live. Opening the show, his old Staten Island pals John Lugo and Tom Shannon joined him, each man methodically working a laptop full of beats and loops which ranged from thunderous to funky, to spare, sometimes disintegrating into the mist. Much as there are plenty of grim scenes in the movie, RZA’s score seized on the occasionally sardonic moments, whenever they occurred, if only to lighten the overcast atmospherics.

The most relevatory moment was when RZA left his laptop and moved to a keyboard in the midde of the stage. Nonchalant and workmanlike, he began with steady, spare piano chords and took his time building a cumulo-nimbus backdrop, switching to a series of symphonic string synthesizer patches. Anyone who assumed back in the 90s that RZA was simply patchworking snippets from old soul and funk recordings might be dead wrong. Moving from behind the studio curtain, RZA affirmed his status as a major cinematic composer and a more than competent keyboardist.

There was a special guest, too: Raekwon motored in from the wings to rap the final verse of the classic Wu-Tang anthem C.R.E.A.M. about midway through the movie. A previous attempt at Lincoln Center Out of Doors to stage symphonic hip-hop – with West Coast material, last year –  fell flat. With that in mind, it was even more rewarding to see a lifelong New Yorker getting credit for a mighty success on his home turf.

The next cinema-related Lincoln Center Out of Doors show is this Friday, July 27 at 7:30 PM out back in Damrosch Park with the New York premiere of Hal Willner’s Amarcord Nino Rota, a mix of jazz talent reimagining classic Fellini  film scores from the 50s and 60s. Security is very brisk and efficient as in years past, but it still couldn’t hurt to get there early if you want a seat.

Morricone Youth Slay Zombies in Williamsburg

It’s hard to imagine a better way to cap off Halloween month than watching Morricone Youth play a live score to George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. Backs to the crowd, gamelan style, so they could follow every split-second cue onscreen, the band’s performance this past evening at Nighthawk Cinema in Williamsburg was a lot more entertaining than the movie. From the applause afterward, one suspects that the sold-out audience agreed.

The score is just out and available on limited edition neon green vinyl, the inaugural release in an ambitious series of fifteen soundtracks to the midnight movies the band’s played live to in the past five years. This one is a very cleverly intertwined series of three themes and variations, comprising both original soundtrack pieces and newly composed material. Although keyboardist Dan Kessler used his synclavier to trigger the occasional motorik loop, and guitarist/bandleader Devon E. Levins seemed to have an atmospheric wash or two stashed away in a pedal, everything else was completely live. Bassist John Castro matched a looming, booming presence to poinpoint precision in tandem with drummer Shaun Lowecki, who impressed with his tightness and subtlety despite having been pressed into service with just two rehearsals.

Kessler took centerstage most of the time with an endlessly shifting series of texures: eerily twinkling electric piano, sardonic wah-wah chromatics, ghostly music-box glockenspiel and warpy, rasping 60s synth tones. Levins lurked in the corner, stage left and alternated expertly between stilletto tremolo-picking, a little spaghetti western twang, elegantly menacing ripples and lingering, murderous ambience.

And like the movie, the score was absolutely hilarious in places. With an almost simultaneous flash of grins throughout the band, the group gently worked their way through a twinkling, sotto-voce love theme while a bizarre hint of romance between humans beseiged by zombies flickered onscreen. And the sudden, emphatic jolts in a couple of segments of the increasingly macabre main theme turned out not to mirror gunshots, or zombie deathblows. Timed to the split second, those sudden hits drove home the nails that the film’s protagonist was lackadaisically hammering in order to bar the doors and windows of the house that serves as the set for almost the entire film.

About the movie: for those who haven’t seen it, it’s like an Ed Wood production. Eighty percent of the budget gets saved for the vehicles and extras at the end. Watching how Romero pads the film to stretch it out to full-feature length – here’s the Pontiac going up the hill! Now here it is going down that same hill! – is funny at first and then leaves you wondering whether it’s time to take a break for a snack, or for the bathroom. Both of which would have been an option, had the band not been playing: the venue is primarily a bar/restaurant that just happens to show movies. The only real mystery here was where the box office was. “Upstairs!” hollered the guy behind the downtstairs bar. But the only office up there didn’t open until right before the performance.

Xavier Giannoli’s Marguerite: A Dark Historical Comedy for Our Time

The idle classes have been embarrassing themselves in song long before the Strokes or Bon Iver ever mumbled a fractured lyric or two into their phones’ memo banks. Xavier Giannoli‘s hilariously snarky black comedy Marguerite, now showing at the Angelika and the Paris Theatre, 4 W 58th St., explores that dynamic in a Roaring 20s setting, something akin to the Coen Brothers in French.

The film draws its inspiration from Florence Foster Jenkins, an American socialite whose childhood success as a pianist was counterbalanced, grotesquely, by her utter ineptitude as a wannabe opera singer. Where Jenkins largely performed for her fellow one-tenth-of-one-percenters at society functions, Giannoli’s fictional Marguerite Dumont (a spot-on, beaming, sincerely delusional Catherine Frot) warbles, off-key to her special cercle, who only tolerate her since she’s the one footing the tab for lavish soirées at her château.

Enter music critic Lucien Beaumont (Sylvain Dieuaide, in a role that never gets the chance to resolve a couple of potentially tasty subplots), vaulting over the castle wall with his wingman in tow. Realizing that Marguerite is missing something upstairs and that she could be played for her money, Beaumont writes a fawning review. Spurred by this unexpected critical reaction – and then by several which are not exactly glowing – Marguerite fixates on putting on her first big public performance. Meanwhile, her long-suffering husband (a devastatingly deadpan Andre Marcot) is equally dead set against further public embarrassment, resorting to one subterfuge after another.

To further complicate matters, Beaumont hooks her up with a has-been operatic tenor ( Michel Fau, in a hilariously foulmouthed, louche performance) as a vocal coach. At this point, it looks like he and the grifters in his entourage are actually going to get Marguerite to pull together a set and get through it in front of a real audience. Even her husband grudgingly admits that she’s not as bad as she was when she first fancied herself a diva.

It’s here that Giannoli’s satire kicks into high gear. You want to root for Marguerite, the outsider who only lives for her art, mangled though it might be. But every time she tries to justify her hobby-gone-wild, she falls flat on her face. She may play the wide-eyed innocent, but underneath she’s a bored dillettante and a classist pig. Likewise, as hubby’s attempts at sabotage become more and more farcical, it becomes clear that he’s not about to sacrifice any business scheme or schmoozing to placate his increasingly erratic wife.

Giannolli, who both wrote and directed, faithfully evokes both an early 1920s Surrealist demimonde – and its hijinks – as well as a post-WWI French upper crust trying to maintain a shaken stolidity. Snide one-liners fly fast and furious in period-perfect slang (which, sadly, the English subtitles often don’t come close to capturing). The ending is sudden and unexpected, and while not foreshadowed, makes sense considering Giannoli’s worldview, although the implication that Jenkins/Marguerite wouldn’t have made such a spectacle of herself if her husband had been more attentive doesn’t hold water, at least here. Ultimately, karma is a bitch: payback is even more of one.

A Surreal, Paradigm-Shifting Night of Music and Film at the Asia Society

On face value, the idea of mashing up Beijing opera with icily cinematic, Bob Belden-esque, post-Miles Davis tableaux might seem like a particularly farfetched exercise in hippie esoterica. But for guitarist and Chinese sanxian lute player Zhu Ma, the blues scale and the Asian pentatonic scale are peas in a pod, and he’s right. For that matter, most folk music traditions around the world have some connection to the blues, which shouldn’t be any surprise since the blues has its roots in Ethiopia, the birthplace of humanity itself. Last night at the Asia Society, the bandleader and his eight-piece ensemble brought those commonalities into sharp focus, throughout a set that began by making terse Western horizontal music out of ancient Chinese themes and ended with dissociative, distantly menacing, air-conditioned psychedelia. In between songs – and a slowly crescendoing, stormy live film soundtrack – the guitarist carefully and colorfully articulated his mission as both an advocate for the music of his home country and its infinite possibilities

The bandleader opened the performance on sanxian, joined by his band Pi-Huang Club – Jiang Kenan on bass, Liu Sheng on drums, Lu Jaiwei on pingtan lute and vocals, Yan Jonathan Boodhoo on percussion and gong, with Erik Deutch on keys, Nolan Tsang on trumpet and filmmaker David A. Harris on alto sax. Together they slowly worked their way up from wispy minimalism to a cumulo-nimbus peak as ornately costumed chanteuse Dong Xueping and singer Lu Su delivered stately, often otherworldly versions of the Beijing opera pieces featured in Harris’ new film, Sever, which was projected behind them. The movie, part slapstick and part surrealist Lynchian noir, is a hoot. The storyline follows a famous Chinese folk narrative, in which the rather buffoonish Guan Yu is betrayed by and eventually gets even with vixen Diao Chan by cutting off her head. The two singers play those respective roles in the film, the female lead a more allusive presence in contrast to Lu Su’s tragicomic, befuddledly Falstaffian persona, wandering a modern Beijing and slowly losing bits and pieces of his elaborate opera costume to thieves and misadventures. Anyone looking for the root source of a lot of David Lynch’s ideas ought to see this: it’s coming from a lot of the same places.

The rest of the concert brought to mind artists as diverse as Ennio Morricone and Pink Floyd. Playing a vintage hollowbody Gibson, Zhu Ma’s style often echoed his training in traditional Chinese music. with stately, steadily rhythmic passages that would go on for bars at a time. But he also brought to mind David Gilmour as he added savage curlicues and achingly angst-infused tension, pulling away from the center, during the most bluesy interludes. The highlight of the set was a nebulous boudoir noir soundsscape that could have been Morricone, or maybe even a Roy Ayers b-movie theme from the 70s, infused with stark Chinese motives.

The Asia Society’s impresario, Rachel Cooper, enthused about Zhu Ma being an old soul, and that’s true, but he’s also a perennially young, adventurous one. This concert was staged jointly by PS122 and the R.A.W. (Rising Artists’ Works) project of the Shanghai International Arts Festival. While one might expect stodgy and doctrinaire from such a program, if this was any indication, audiences there are in for an edgy time.

NASA’s Spectacular Bella Gaia Multimedia Extravaganza Makes Its Brooklyn Debut on August 30

Did you know that in the state of Florida, you can get fired from the State Department of Environmental Protection for mentioning global warming? The official rightwing-approved term for it, as the coastline recedes and the waters rise, is “nuisance flooding.” Which leads to the question of what’s next – requiring a weatherman to use the more palatable “wet air” instead of “rain?”

That’s just one example of how the extreme right is hell-bent on directing the conversation away from rising temperatures around the world (you’d think that considering how much waterfront property they own, they’d be hell-bent on protecting it, but that’s typical Republican cognitive dissonance). On the realistic side of the equation, the scientists at NASA are very concerned about global warming and its potentially apocalyptic consequences, and in an intriguing and very captivating stroke of theatricality, they’ve come up with the lavish multimedia project Bella Gaia. An experience suitable for the whole family, it utilizes video imagery of our changing Earth taken from outer space alongside dance and a wildly eclectic, cinematic live musical score in order to get people to pay attention to the simple message that if we don’t stop the rise in global temperatures, we can pretty much kiss the world goodbye. The complete Balla Gaia experience comes to Broooklyn Bowl on August 30 at 7:30 PM; cover is $10, which gets you not just the film and projections but also the dancers and band.

The soundtrack album – streaming at Spotify – a lavish, majestic mashup of global sounds, is often nothing short of breathtaking: if the visuals come anywhere close to matching it, the experience could be an awful lot of fun. It opens with Living Universe, a brightly waltzing, sparkling main theme lit up with composer/bandleader Kenji Williams’ effects-laden violin multitracks alongside Kristin Hoffmann’s soaring, passionate, enveloping vocalese and balletesque piano over percussionist Deep Singh’s hypnotic groove. Like the other themes here, it’s a big, sweeping piece of music that sounds like a whole symphony orchestra rather than just the work of three musicians. Yumi Kurosawa’s koto adds otherworldly, spiky textures before it fades down elegantly to just Hoffmann’s piano.

Singh layers sitar, harmonium and mystically rustling percussion on the second number, Orbital, a dramatic, dynamically-charged blend of Indian classical and modern-day film music; Hoffmann’s careful, precise piano reminds of the work of a similarly pioneering, south Asian-influenced pianist, Anton Batagov. Ocean’s Blood, a circular, indie classical-inspired theme, sends a hypnotic series of call-and-response motives spinning through the mix, Hoffmann’s voice mingling with the strings, growing more raw and apprehensive over Singh’s trancey clickety-clack rhythm.

Kurosawa’s stately, suspenseful, almost imperceptibly crescendoin koto takes centerstage in Takeda Lullaby – Inner Space. From there the group segues into a kinetically atmospheric, similarly Asian-tinged interlude pulsing with echoes and slowly shifting sheets of sound. The circular theme returns, this time with variations on a west African folk-inspired motif. From there the music shifts to the Nile with Lety ElNaggar’s ney flute and Shanir Blumenkranz’s oud, building to an achingly beautiful Middle Eatern melody that twists and turns through innumerable variations as it picks up steam. It makes for a stunning centerpiece. The album winds up with deep-space atmospherics, trip-hop and motorik rhythms, and a big Alan Parsons Project-style conclusion. The only dud is a failed attempt to mix jazz with top 40 urban pop: too bad that’s how our city is depicted, musically speaking anyway. In addition to the soundtrack, there is also a dvd available.

Rachel Mason Unveils Her Gorgeously Lurid, Erudite Historical Song Suite at Joe’s Pub

Rachel Mason is best known as an uncategorizable performer who refuses to be pigeonholed. Throughout her extensive body of work, the theatrical and narrative aspects are typically as important as the music. Focusing strictly on songcraft, what was stunning at her performance at Joe’s Pub on Sunday night was how impactful her tunes are even without those theatrics – and what a spellbinding singer she is. In a rare concert performance, backed by a tight and inspired band – Tanner Beam on lead guitar, Stu Watson on bass, Robbie Lee on flute, Michael Durek on piano and theremin and Chris Moses Kinlow on drums – Mason aired out songs from her brand-new film and accompanying soundtrack album, The Lives of Hamilton Fish. Auspiciously, Mason’s latest magnum opus is currently in development as a theatre work written by Pia Wilson, to be produced by Cindy Sibilsky. As lurid and downright haunting as Mason’s music and the accompanying art-film are, a stage version could have mass appeal far beyond the confines of cutting-edge downtown New York performance.

Although Mason serves as a Greek chorus of sorts both in the film and on the soundtrack, her point of view takes a backseat to the twin narratives of two men, both named Hamilton Fish, who died on the same day in 1936. Mason has really done her homework, historically speaking – while the serial killer and pedophile Hamilton Albert Fish provides plenty of grisly grist for the mill, what might be most impressive is how she brings to life the other Hamilton Fish. He was the second in a line that would number a total of five men with that improbable name, a seemingly dour and tormented upstate New York political lifer upstaged by his famous father, a United States Secretary of State central to the doctrine and practice of manifest destiny. Exactly the kind of complex characters Mason loves to illuminate.

She opened the show with a tensely pulsing janglerock number, 60s Laurel Canyon pop through the swirly prism of 80s psychedelia in a Plan 9 vein, then going deeper into paisley underground territory as she traced the two lives that ended in side-by-side obituaries “tied together by the Evening Star.” She gave voice to the more benign Fish’s familial angst in Distinguished Line, a matter-of-factly strolling folk noir number, then took a stark, horrified, operatic tour through the deadly Fish’s horrific younger days in Wild Fish Pt. 1, an electrified take on late 19th century front-porch folk.

The narrative continued its harrowing, mysterious course with the uneasily Dylanesque, aptly titled Nightmare, the politician haunted by the ghost of his wife as the theremin whistled ominously in the background. Mason waited until The Werewolf of Wisteria – as the serial killer was known after a Staten Island murder – to spiral around at the top of her vocal range; throughout most of the show, her moody alto made a powerful vehicle for her grimly detailed story. The stark Broken Soul of a Hunan Being – based on a letter the killer wrote to the mother of one of his victims – made for a chilling example.

And in a cameo, pianist/singer M. Lamar delivered chills with his otherworldly falsetto and murky attack on the keys, channeling the horror and pain of a tortured child – throughout both the album and the film, Mason leaves no doubt that the killer Fish wasn’t born that way, he was made. It’ll be fascinating to see how this translates to the stage.

Rachel Mason’s Epic New Folk Noir Album Traces Two Twisted Historical Narratives

In addition to her work in film, video and performance art, Rachel Mason is one of the most entertaining artists in art-rock. An edgy surrealism, a laser sense for catchy tunes and a spot-on political sensibility define her work. She’s performed pieces which recreate a Rand Paul thirteen-hour filibuster in its entirety, sent shout-outs to freedom fighters in Chechnya and to inspirations as disparate as Beyonce and Marina Abramovic. Mason’s latest project is an ambitious film where she plays the role of a newspaper editor whose imagination is sparked by the January 15, 1936 deaths of two historical figures, both named Hamilton Fish. One is a New York State congressman and the most minor figure in a prominent political family, the other a sadistic serial killer and self-described cannibal executed in the Sing Sing electric chair. The accompanying double album, The Lives of Hamilton Fish is streaming at Bandcamp.  Mason has a couple of intriguing shows coming up: on July 21 at 7:30 PM sharp at Anthology Film Archives, she’ll be singing to accompany the film. Then on July 26 at 7 PM, Mason will playing the album with her band and countertenor M. Lamar at Joe’s Pub. General admission is $15, but advance tix are a good idea because it’s likely to sell out.

This is one creepy album. There are a grand total of twenty-one tracks on Mason’s folk noir magnum opus, mostly just reverbtoned acoustic guitar and vocals. Mason has really done her homework, filling out the narrative in rich detail. For example, in the opening cut, Two Strangers, Mason alludes to the many sewing pins that the killer Fish inserted into his abdomen…and also references the most likely apocryphal stash of cash that his shady Republican county boss namesake buried in the woods somewhere in New England. Mason’s voice is richly nuanced, depending on the song; sometimes muted and somber, sometimes horrified and reaching for the rafters with a spine-tingling, dramatic edge, as on The Werewolf of Wisteria, one of the monickers given to the sadomasochistic Fish in the contemporary press.

Likewise, the music is typically somber and minor-key as a lurid crime chronicle takes centerstage. On one hand, Mason doesn’t downplay the grisly, hallucinatory storyline, but she also doesn’t deny dignity to the victims, many of them children. And there’s plenty of sympathy here for the tortured orphan who would later turn his demons loose on the world – he claimed to have killed, dismembered and eaten more than a hundred victims, a claim that’s been subject to plenty of dispute. Mason also poignantly reminds that an innocent man was tried – and acquitted – for one of Fish’s crimes.

The sarcasm rises to fever pitch in A Distinguished Line, contemplating the irony in how history remembers a mass murderer better than the undistinguished scion of a Republican political fortune. Mason’s sarcasm is crushing: “I sang soprano in the little boys’ choir, and the things they did to me made my voice grow higher,” she sings in Wild Fish, a broodingly subdued chronicle of the killer’s horrific childhood. Mason really works the mystery – despite the two central characters’ divergent life stories, sometimes it’s hard to tell which Fish Mason is talking about. Throughout the album, two other similarly brilliant, historically-inspired songwriters, Robin Aigner and Elisa Flynn often come to mind. The arrangements occasionally get more fleshed out, encompassing creepy Alec Redfearn-esque organ-fueled psychedelia and shuffling Americana or 80s goth-tinged rock.

And what of the largely forgotten upstate New York politico? There’s a happy ending here, at least on his side. While not addressed on the album, Hamilton Fish V – the last of the line, Hamilton-wise – redeemed the name, turning the family’s Republican legacy on its axis, becoming a prime mover behind the resurgence of the influential progressive weekly The Nation. After springboarding a respected think tank and independent media center, the Nation Institute, Fish V now runs a consultancy that aids environmentally sustainable businesses. At least that’s what he does when he’s not growing organic produce.