New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: fiona apple

Soul Singer Alice Lee’s Long-Awaited New Album: One of 2017’s Catchiest, Most Lyrically Searing Releases

Back in the mid-zeros, soul singer Alice Lee was one of the most distinctive and individualistic artists in what was a thriving Lower East Side and Brooklyn music scene. She remains one of the most eclectic tunesmiths to emerge from there, blending jazz sophistication, trippy downtempo ambience, and a little slashing punk-funk or downtown guitar skronk into her uneasy, picturesque songs. This blog’s predecessor picked her 2005 release Lovers and Losers as one of the thousand best albums of all time. That one was sort of a mashup of Nina Simone and Fiona Apple.

In the years since then, gentrification continued to blight neighborhoods across the city, and Lee was one of the thousands driven out by the luxury-condo blitzkrieg. These days she’s been dividing her time between here and Guatemala, continuing to play her own music as well as tropicalia and jazz throughout Central America. Now, she finally has a new album, The Wheel – streaming at Bandcamp – and a a show coming on on May 25 at 9 PM Pete’s Candy Store, one of the few remaining venues that she played back in the day that’s still open.

Although there’s great elegance and nuance in her voice on these songs, the overall atmosphere is sobering and defiantly angry. Much of the material is awash in regret; the album’s best songs are searing narratives of 99-percenter struggles. She kicks things off with a swinging, lo-fi guitar-and-vocal jazz miniature, These Foolish Things: it’s over in a heartbeat, just like the affair it commemorates. The wickedly anthemic, trip-hop-tinged Where Are You My Love, a longtime concert favorite, captures Lee in the studio circa 2003 on electric piano, with Yuval Gabay on drums and Lee’s longtime producer, Pere Ubu and No Grave Like the Sea mastermind Tony Maimone on bass.David Johnson’s tersely biting Spanish guitar solo midway through matches the bittersweetness and longing in Lee’s voice as it finally rises at the end.

Most of the rest of the songs here feature Mark Schwartz on bass and Alejandro Vega on drums, with Maimone on the four-string on a handful of tracks. The blockbuster cut is the resolutely insistent Your Blues, an anthem for the era of Ferguson and Eric Garner, Lee doubletracking her blippy, distorted electric piano and judiciously resonant electric guitar:

Bend your life, break your back
For a system that bruises you
Twenty lashes in jail
When it fails you, accuses you
Don’t exist in the eyes of the law
They can do with you as they please
You stand up for yourself
And they bring you to your knees
Can’t look me in the eye
As you take your shot
The blood on your hands
Will come out in the wash
How can you stand by
Watch your brother fall and suffer
At the hands of another
How far are we from done
From disconnect and thinking we’re the only ones

Another electric piano groove, Letter to No One revisits the surreal, restless nocturnal vibe of much of Lovers & Losers:

My heart is overwhelmed
By a tide that won’t turn
I stumble forward, wondering how long
Before I wake
The key to happiness,
A secret no one else can crack
Always looking forward and
Never looking back

The album’s loopy, tricky, syncopated title track looks at the desperation of love in a time of wage slavery:

These days were meant for the dogs
You hit the blocks hard but you don’t get the job
Or you get the job but you’re full up in debt
That you spend the rest of your life trying to get ahead
…You don’t get a choice in the matter
Until you get caught

Lee revisits the theme in the briskly swinging, catchy, cynical Too Little Too Late, another big audience hit:

We go forward, two steps back
Hit play, repeat, don’t skip the track…
Watch the broken glass across the gap
Step on the line don’t let me pass the same way twice

Descent, set to an ironic downward chord progression, is Lee at her most harrowing and intense, with a creepy, tremolo-picked dreampop guitar solo:

Repetition is a curse
Save the chorus
Erase the verse
Where were you
When I was down
For the count, but not quite out
Passing ghost with no regrets
Learning to live and forget

The funky First and Sixth, another brooding nocturne, will resonate with anybody who has bittersweetly hazy memories of wee-hours hookups in what was then a (semi) affordable East Village on nights when the trains were all messed up: “Waiting on the L just out of luck, now I’m stuck at 14th St., waiting on my whiskey sour…it’s almost time for breakfast again…make no difference, hand to mouth…I don’t care if I’m the only one to get out of here alive.” This wasn’t such a long time ago, either.

Love Is a Thief, an elegant jazz waltz of sorts, dates from the early zeros and has the feel of early 60s Nina Simone blended with Velvets folk-rock: Lee plays it solo on acoustic guitar and piano. She works a psychedelically sparkling upward trajectory on the kiss-off anthem Left of Mine, brooding guitar jangle set to a funky shuffle beat. The album also includes a couple of remixes, including legendary Greenpoint producer Scotty Hard’s version of First and Sixth. It’s only May, but we may have the best album of 2017 here.

The Grasping Straws Release Their Savagely Intense, Tuneful New Album at the Mercury

New York band the Grasping Straws have been through a lot of changes, but their latest incarnation is absolutely spine-tingling. Their ambitious debut ep – streaming at Bandcamp – introducd them as a rainy-day, jazz-tinged, jangly project in the same vein the Cardigans or Comet Gain. Their forthcoming album takes the energy up several thousand volts – wow! Frontwoman Mallory Feuer blends an otherwordly, raw, bluesy edge with the fearlessness of pre-meltdown Courtney Love, both vocally and guitarwise, instantly putting this group on the map as one of New York’s most distinctive, individualistic, exciting new bands. They’re playing the album release show on June 30 at 10:30 PM at the Mercury/ Sultry punk-folk-soul siren Liah Alonso – formerly of politically fueled rockers Left on Red – opens the night at 9:30 PM. Cover is $10.

Although there are some identifiable influences in the band’s sound, Fiona Apple first and foremost, their sound is unique. Feuer’s chords ring out with a reverbtoned, enigmatic edge, her vocals wailing, murmuring or occasionally rising to a goosebump-inducing scream with a sardonic lyrical bite while hard-hitting drummer Jim Bloom holds the songs to the rails. Sam Goldfine – formerly of popular alternative rock road warriors Beast Make Bomb – completes the picture as the band’s latest addition. Recorded in analog to half-inch eight track tape, the album’s production has an immediacy that captures their rollercoaster live show.

The jaggedly catchy opening track, State of Affairs reflects the disarray left in the wake of Hurricane Sandy in 2012, the year Feuer, a native New Yorker, founded the band. She switches gears with the ghostly, stark intro to Home, building to an uneasy, acidic vintage Sonic Youth grit. Just a Memory welds wounded, blues-infused paisley underground psychedelia to a late 80s Seattle assault.

Bloom pushes How Will I Grow with a scrambling punk rock pulse; Feuer’s indignant vocals channel Heart’s Ann Wilson as second guitarist Rob Krug adds acid blues textures. Feuer takes Say It Ain’t So up to a frantic doublespeed attack, then flips the script with Your Face, which begins as a hauntingly spare reflection drenched in natural reverb, then rises to a shatteringly epic peak (listen to those multitracked screams at 2:17 – bone-chilling!). The final cut, Don’t Hold Your Breath, looks back to the enigmatic, jazz-inflected vein the band mined in their early days. First-class tracks wall to wall with this one: put it on the shortlist for best full-length debut of 2015.

Powerful Stuff from When the Broken Bow

Portland, Oregon band When the Broken Bow make intense, powerful music. Their apocalyptic new album We, the Dangerous Weapons is a mix of ornate, anguished gypsy rock and pensive, trippy, surreal, sometimes haunting lo-fi chamber pop and noir cabaret. Some of their more elaborate songs evoke Botanica; the politically-fueled stuff reminds of Humanwine. Punctuated by the occasional brief instrumental interlude, it begins pensively and ends in horror. The whole thing is streaming at their Bandcamp site; tracks can also be downloaded. Frontwoman Ali Ippolito’s voice ranges from understated plaintiveness to raw, unselfconscious rage; she also plays piano, banjo uke, accordion and builds lush layers of orchestration with “midi stuff.” Justin Stimson adds biting, sometimes ferocious reverb guitar and nimbly melodic, growling bass in tandem with Sharon Ermlich’s sometimes majestic, sometimes nuanced drum work.

The first of the songs, For Argument’s Sake, is what would have been the hit single if this was thirty years ago: it sounds like Fiona Apple but edgier, Stimson’s distorted leads mingling with the piano’s precise broken chords. Then things gets dark and stay like that the rest of the way. The first of the waltz songs is Better Than My Own, its sadness and longing obscured for a bit by an unexpectedly jaunty ragtime interlude. Stimson adds twin guitars straight out of the Brian May playbook against Ippolito’s nebulously creepy piano on The Game, building up to an explosive, raging crescendo. A steady, swaying banjo uke song, My Favorite Question looks for hope in a hopeless situation: “Cry over this genocide and all the pain it brings..what are we to do with ourselves?” Ippolito asks repeatedly.

They go back to creepy waltz territory for Where Are You, a bitter, ragtime-tinged tale of abandonment, punctuated by more of those twin guitar leads which Stimson artfully manages to keep from veering off into cheesy Hotel California territory. The most explosive track here is titled To Warrant a War on Want, which builds from a slow cabaret swing to a screaming guitar interlude as Ippolito critiques a vicious cycle of consumption and comformity that spells imminent doom for future generations:

You don’t know what powers that be
Make you think that this is right
Sweet dreams, sweet fantasy
These things are made in factories
Hurry and wake up to your life
Or you’re gonna end up one of their machines

The band follows that with a menacing nocturnal shoreline scenario, another dark waltz that morphs through several tricky tempo changes into a big, orchestrated gypsy rock anthem. Magnify starts out predictably, pensive and slow, the guitar and piano over oscillating white noise panning the speakers and slowly takes on a bitter, anthemically elegaic quality: “I didn’t know what it was like to be you, to be tiny little you,” Ippolito laments to the guy she’s lost to “inanimate objects.” The album ends with a scampering bit of a punk interlude and then the wistful banjo uke waltz Giving Up the Ship: “I can’t imagine I’ll make it out alive…there are too many others to step on and step over,” Ippolito announces as the choir of screams grows louder and louder. And then it’s over: with a bang, not a whimper. Without a doubt, this strange, intriguing and fearless album is among the best to come out over the past year. Ippolito spent some time here before heading out to Portland; watch this space for possible return appearances.