New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: frank zappa

Another Savagely Brilliant Album and a Williamsburg Gig from Expertly Feral Guitarist Ava Mendoza’s Power Trio

Word on the street is that Ava Mendoza is the best guitarist in Brooklyn – and might have been for a long time. Her show with creepy, organ-and-sax-fueled quasi-surf instrumentalists Hearing Things at Barbes at the end of last month was mind-blowing. Mendoza has become that band’s secret weapon: through two sardonic sets, she had her reverb turned way up, slashing and clanging and often roaring through the group’s allusive changes. With her, they’re more Doors than Stranglers, but without any of the 60s cliches, Mendoza’s next gig is August 10 at around 10 PM leading her  epic noisemetal power trio Unnatural Ways on a triplebill in between the math-iest doom band ever, Skryptor, and shapeshiftingly surrealistic Chicago art-rockers Cheer Accident at Ceremony, 224 Manhattan Ave. (off Maujer) in Williamsburg. The venue doesn’t have a website, so it’s anybody’s guess what the cover is. To avoid hourlong-plus waits for the L train, your best bet is to take the G to Broadway and walk from there

Unnatural Ways’ new album The Paranoia Party is streaming at Bandcamp. True to form, it’s a relentlessly dark concept album, more or less, centered around a disturbing encounter with alien beings. Mendoza and bassist Tim Dahl shift between warpy sci-fi sonics and machete riffery in the opening track, Go Back to Space: it’s the missing link between Thalia Zedek’s legendary 90s band Come and Daydream Nation-era Sonic Youth.

The Runaway Song is a savage mashup of Syd Barrett, Diamond Dogs-era Bowie and 70s Zappa. Most of All We Love to Spy is nine sometimes skronky, sometimes crushingly ornate minutes of chromatics over drummer Sam Ospovat’s precise but relentlessly thumping syncopation.

Mendoza fires off volley after volley of casually sinister Dick Dale tremolo-picking over a squiggly backdrop in Trying to Pass. The band shift from machinegunning hardcore to a doomy sway centered around a surprisingly glammy guitar riff in Draw That Line, Mendoza and Dahl each hitting their chorus pedals for icy ominousness. They machete their way through the fragmentary Soft Electric Rays, which leads into the final cut, Cosmic Border Cop, a deliciously acidic pool of close harmonies, macabre chromatics and distorted scorch over a constantly shifting rhythmic skeleton. Easily one of the ten best, most adrenalizing rock albums released in 2019 so far.

Cosmopolitan Surrealism from Rabih Abou-Khalil

Lebanese-French oudist and composer Rabih Abou-Khalil’s latest album Hungry People is jaunty, funny, unpredictably trippy and quintessentially cosmopolitan. It’s nebulously Middle Eastern, but it owes as much to American jazz and rock (especially Frank Zappa) as it does any traditional levantine style. The lead instrument here, for the most part, is not the oud but Sardinian singer Gavino Murgia’s terse, resonant soprano sax. Accordionist Luciano Biondini adds lickety-split Mediterranean flair alongside tuba virtuoso Michel Godard, who somehow gets his big horn to emulate an entire brass section’s worth of sounds. It’s ironic yet not particularly surprising that the most potentially comedic instrument on such a humor-driven album would be given a more serioso role than the rest of the band. Eclectic drummer Jarrod Cagwin propels this beast with beats that run the gamut from mighty to delicate.

For the most part, these songs don’t frequently employ the haunting, modal Middle Eastern grooves that a lot of fans of this music  gravitate toward. To set the stage, the blithe opening track, Shrilling Chicken adds some bouncy Moroccan flavor to a familiar American blues progression. While an oud, an accordion and growly electric bass all vamping the blues over a North African beat might not be what you might expect, that’s pretty much the point here. The second cut, When the Dog Bites has Zappa-esque surrealism, a latin-tinged groove, a funky tuba bassline and droll throat-singing from Murgia.

Unsurprisingly, the best songs here – and the ones that will appeal the most to fans of more traditional, uneasily slinky levantine sounds – are the serious ones. A Better Tomorrow is one of the rare places where the oud gets centerstage – and finally a long, suspenseful solo – lit up by Cagwin’s lush cymbal work. And Dreams of a Dying City has the feel of a cautionary tale, terse, elegaic and insistently, ominously crescendoing.

The rest of the album shifts from satirically bustling cinematics (Bankers’ Banquet and the offhandedly chilling Hats and Cravats) to shuffling Irish reel allusions (Fish & Chips & Mushy Peas), to madcap 50s Egyptian film music (When Frankie Shot Lara), to unexpectedly pensive and lyrical (If You Should Leave Me), to the busy Shaving Is Boring, Waxing Is Painful, the closest thing to straight-up jazz here with its tricky metrics. Those who like this album also ought to check out Abou-Khalil’s orchestral works, which his inimitable brand of surrealism to new levels with some lavish arrangements. This one’s out now from Harmonia Mundi.

Vagabond Swing Brings Their Wild Live Show to NYC

Sunday night Lafayette, Louisiana’s Vagabond Swing gave the crowd at Rockwood Music Hall something to remember for months, blasting through what had to be the wildest, most ferocious show this normally sedate venue (“Classy,” a band member called it) might have ever hosted. “This is the smallest stage we’ve played in years,” admitted their trumpeter, but that’s what happens when bands who play to huge crowds on the road hit this city the first time around. And yet as much as they threatened to completely blow out the PA system, they felt the room, pushing it as far as it would go without being completely over-the-top. The group incorporates elements of Gogol Bordello at their most psychedelic, the Strawbs, Zappa, World Inferno, Tom Waits and Aunt Ange and yet sounds nothing like any of those acts. Their drummer also fronts the band, leaping from behind the kit out into the audience on several occasions, backed by trumpet plus two guitars, electric mandolin, bass and drums, the trumpeter and a couple of the guitarists doubling on creepy funeral organ.

Their shapeshifting songs went on for what seemed 20 minutes at a clip. To call them psychedelic gypsy punk isn’t off the mark but it doesn’t do justice to how crazily eclectic and intense they are. Their first number kicked off with a blistering Keystone Kops intro that morphed into a pensive waltz, then a swaying cabaret vamp and then back to the chase scene which didn’t take long to go completely awry with noisy guitar and trumpet solos. The second featured two slinky bass solos, two macabre organ interludes, a slowly careening waltz that reminded of the heavier stuff on Abbey Road and then a pensive folk-rock interlude with the trumpet soaring uneasily overhead. From there they went into brooding minor-key reggae and came out of that with machine-gun drums into morbidly swirling Carnival of Souls atmospherics. And then the trumpeter led them into a brief, bracing Ethiopian-flavored passage that turned menacingly Macedonian in a split-second and went doublespeed with a vengeance. Is there any style of music this band can’t play?

Wait, there’s more: a punked-out tango with an especially sweet trumpet solo; a twistedly bluesy merry-go-round waltz and a screaming Cab Calloway hi-de-ho number on acid. Vocals are part of the picture, but those didn’t come through clearly considering how fast and furious the band was playing. It didn’t matter. This was the kind of show that gives you enough adrenaline to sprint from the club, cut across two lines of traffic on Allen Street in the pouring rain and then dive down into the subway out of the storm, all in the span of about fifteen seconds. That’s not to suggest that you should do that, only to illustrate how exhilarating it felt to witness something this explosive at midnight on a Sunday.