New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Tag: greek rock

A Lavish, Ambitious, Politically-Inspired New Album by Banda Magda

Banda Magda frontwoman Magda Giannikou writes fluently and fearlessly in an amazing number of styles from around the world. Accordion is her main axe, but she also plays the lanterna, an ancient, magically rippling Greek instrument. Her band’s debut album T’es La put a cheery Mediterranean spin on vintage French ye-ye pop. The follow-up, 2014’s Yerakina, was far darker, established the band as a major force in latin and Mediterranean psychedelia, and earned them a regular spot in the rotation on the New York outdoor summer concert circuit.

The songs on the band’s latest album Tigre –  streaming at Spotify – draw inspiration from freedom fighters in her native Greece battling Eurozone bankster terrorism. The Nicaraguan struggle against corporate-funded death squads became a focal point for punk rock forty years ago. Is this the 2018 counterpart to the Clash’s Sandinista album? It’s more opaque, maybe a wise move considering global circumstances at the moment, but it’s practically just as epic. This is all about the orchestration: sweep and grandeur punctuated by elegant guitar and keys, driven by an eclectic rhythm section. The central theme is stay strong: we’ve really got our work cut out for us.

The first track, Tam Tam, welds a slinky, surfy, Middle Eastern-tinged electic bouzouki line to lush, sweeping new wave: if Chicha Libre had been Greek and had existed in 1982, they might have sounded something like this. Giannikou sings this one in French. She welds those lush strings, lingering guitar and new wave touches to a bouncy samba beat in the chipper, cheery Coração – as the song rises, the orchestration and clickety-clack groove grow more hypnotic.

Ase Me Na opens with a long, sweeping, mournful string introduction, then becomes a swaying Aegean anthem – as with the first track, uneasy, spiky electric bouzouki punctuates the enveloping majesty of the strings. Giannikou saves her most hushed, tender vocal for Muchacha, the orchestra occasionally bubbling over a hypnotically circling tropical acoustic guitar tune.

She blends rapidfire Indian riffage into Brazilian forro in the insistent Vem Moren, rising from stark cello riffage to a brass-fueled dance. Chanson is a lush, starry throwback to the balmy pop of the band’s first album, then the band pick up the pace with the tricky, sauntering metrics of Reine de (Queen of…), which could be early 80s Kate Bush with simmering bouzouki, lithe strings and an ending that goes straight to the Sahara.

The title track is a triptych. Over a cinematic, lavish backdrop, Snarky Puppy’s Michael League narrates Giannikou’s thinly vieied political parable about three girls facing down a thieving tiger .The song itself is a vengeful, indomitably pulsing blend of Romany swing, psychedelic cumbia and qawwali, maybe, up to a mighty, shivery, orchestrated coda.

Starry vibraphone lingers over a brisk, emphatic clave beat in Venin (Venom), Giannikou’s French lyrics commenting on the frustrations of love rather than geopolitics. The album winds up with the swirling, droning spacerock of Thiamandi. Count this among the most wildly ambitious and original albums of the past several months.

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Good Cop and Bad Cop Review LJ Murphy Plus the Byzan-Tones

Good Cop: I think this is our big break. We’ve never been given an assignment this good.

Bad Cop: Back on the Columbus shuttle.

Good Cop: You mean the Scranton shuttle.

Bad Cop: I can’t get used to Scranton being a Yankees farm club. It was part of the Phillies system for as long as I can remember.

Good Cop: Now that’s going back a ways! Anyway, tonight we get to review LJ Murphy, the best rock songwriter in town, and then the Byzan-Tones, an awesome surf band! This is a big deal for us! You notice we’ve been getting better assignments lately?

Bad Cop: If you say so…

Good Cop: Sallie Ford & the Sound Outside, then Red Baraat, and this the best yet! If we don’t screw this one up there’s no telling how far we’ll go! [Good Cop elbows Bad Cop in the ribs]

Bad Cop [winces} Ouch! Don’t kid yourself. We haven’t had any assignment from this blog, good or bad, since July. We only got to cover that Sallie Ford concert because the blog had reviewed the record a couple of days before. We only got to do Red Baraat because the story wasn’t the music, it was that horrible experience in Central Park. So if this blog hadn’t reviewed LJ Murphy back in November, we’d still be in Col…I mean, Scranton.

Good Cop: Well, goodbye Scranton. hello Parkside Lounge on a Saturday night! [LJ Murphy,wearing a black suit and porkpie hat and holding a big black acoustic guitar, takes the stage along with his lead guitarist, keyboardist and drummer. With no bass, they launch into a swinging blues]

Bad Cop: I guess this is soundcheck.

Good Cop: I don’t think so. They did the song all the way through. I know this one: it’s Another Lesson I Never Learned.

Bad Cop: Guess they lost their bass player.

Good Cop: Not as far as I know. Nils Sorensen’s also in Brothers Moving, you know, that great Danish Americana band so maybe he had a conflict. And check out Patrick McLellan, he’s playing basslines with his left hand on the piano! At this point they don’t need a bass player…

Bad Cop [emphatically] Oh yes they do. But this guy’s good. Real good. Picked up on what was missing right away and took care of business.

Good Cop: I can’t believe somebody this good is playing the Parkside.

Bad Cop: Classic case of a guy stuck in the New York scene. In this town, you play to your friends. There’s no central scene with any significant following that you can leverage anymore. Here’s a guy who’s as good a songwriter as Richard Thompson, or Steve Earle, or Aimee Mann – and he’s younger than all of them – but he never got to take the band on the road. And he’s a band guy, not a singer-songwriter.

Good Cop: And he’s got a sizeable European following too. Funny how these things happen, isn’t it?

Bad Cop: Sound is not good tonight.

Good Cop: You know the Parkside, it can be good one night and not so good the next.

Bad Cop: It’s the piano. The low mids are feeding. And you can’t hear the electric guitar.

Good Cop: That’s Tommy Hoscheid. Great player. I see he brought his Gibson SG.

Bad Cop: He’s gonna need it.

Good Cop: Oh, I love this song. This is Happy Hour. Anybody who’s suffered through having to hang out with work “friends” in the financial district needs to hear this, it’ll validate you. And I love how LJ has rearranged it as an oldschool Stax/Volt shuffle.

Bad Cop: I liked it better when it was straight up janglerock. At least that’s one thing you can count on with this guy: you never know what you’re gonna get. Always rearranging things. The Faulkner of the three minute rock song. And you notice, he changed the lyric: it used to be “brotherhood of useless warts” instead of “brotherhood of sold and bought.”

Good Cop: That doesn’t rhyme with “one eye on the secretary and the other on the quarterly report.”

Bad Cop: It does if you’re from Queens.

Good Cop: True. “Their daytime dramas wait at home on videocassette,” that’s a really twisted line.

Bad Cop: It wasn’t back when he wrote it. These days you think of a spycam, or a webcam, right? Back then it was like something you Tivoed – except in analog, in real time, and everybody did it, and it actually wasn’t twisted at all. Ha, necessarily, at least. I remember this one time rushing home to record an episode of Survivor for this chick…

Good Cop: I can imagine where you’re going with that. Anyway – check out that creepy cascade from Patrick! This is Mad Within Reason, title track from LJ’s most recent album. “The music was sampled from Bach to James Brown, they saddled the mistress and lowered her down.” Nobody’s writing lyrics like that these days!

Bad Cop: Oh yeah they are. Four words for you: Hannah Versus the Many. But this guy’s good, always has been. “While everybody tried to become what they hate” – and another creepy piano cascade. This is sweet.

Good Cop: This next one’s even sweeter. Pretty for the Parlor – Long Island sniper gone on a spree. What a great tune this is – it’s anthemic, but not derivative or Beatlesque, it’s just good. And full of surprises. “The machinegun mama’s boy has called in sick today,” yum!

Bad Cop: OK, he’s gonna bring it down now. Waiting by the Lamppost for You: a period-perfect blend of sixties soul and blues. “Moonlight delays me, daylight betrays me, I’m hungover and showing my years.” Do you hear Nightclubbing, you know, the Iggy song?

Good Cop: Not unless it’s blasting through the wall from next door. Is that place still a disco?

Bad Cop: We’re at the Parkside, not the Mercury. Nobody next door. Deli across the street.

Good Cop: Oh yeah! Now this drummer’s good. A jazz guy maybe. They’re really rocking out Lonely Avenue – you know, the old Elvis song.

Bad Cop: Doc Pomus wrote it. Orthodox Jewish guy from Brooklyn. Now this is where you lose me, white guys playing the blues.

Good Cop: Aw, c’mon, the audience loves it.

Bad Cop: Once you’ve heard T-Bone Walker do Stormy Monday, all other versions are useless.

Good Cop: T-Bone Walker died before you were born.

Bad Cop: T-Bone Walker actually died when I was in the third grade I think. But I have the album.

Good Cop: This next song is Damaged Goods. What did LJ say, this is the first song he ever wrote in Brooklyn after moving from Queens?

Bad Cop: Guess he must have had the Wall Street job back then. Dungeoness and her crabs, more or less. This guy was on to what Eliot Spitzer and that crew were up to before anybody else was.

Good Cop: Now they’re going back from new wave to noir. This is Fearful Town. Did you hear Patrick quote Riders on the Storm?

Bad Cop [derisively]: Everybody does that. But this is a good song. This is why I came out tonight. Now this speaks to me. This is why I’m here and not someplace else. This guy speaks for anybody who used to live in this neighborhood. “Raided my old hangouts, put away my friends, now I’m sitting on a bonfire on a night that never ends.” LES, 2014, we are with you LJ Murphy!

Good Cop: You’re breaking character. You’re not supposed to do that. You’re supposed to hate everything.

Bad Cop: And you’re breaking the fourth wall. You’re not supposed to do that. What am I supposed to do? I complained about the sound. The blues medley left me cold. But I like this guy. Despite myself. Even this one. This next song is Nowhere Now. Sort of a twisted Chuck Berry kind of thing. I can’t figure it out for the life of me. Maybe it’s about America, all that “200 years of hoping, you’re not hoping anymore” stuff. What do you think?

Good Cop: That’s what I love about LJ’s songs, they draw you in and make you figure out what’s going on. Now this one’s easy, Blue Silence – they’re going to rock the hell out of this.

Bad Cop: And they do. And then they close with Barbed Wire Playpen, another Wall Street dungeoness crab scenario.

Good Cop: Ha ha funny.

Bad Cop: Couldn’t resist. And now we’re off to Otto’s.

Good Cop [about ten minutes later, at Otto’s Shrunken Head]: Holy shit, this place is packed. I haven’t seen Otto’s like this, maybe, ever.

Bad Cop: And we didn’t even get carded walking in.

Good Cop [laughs]: Nobody would ever card you.

Bad Cop: The doofus at the door, the skinhead, once chased me to the back and screamed at me until I showed him my I.D. This is recent, like, last year.

Good Cop: You can’t be serious.

Bad Cop: I’m completely serious. A guy at the bar saw the whole exchange, he came up to me afterward and said he couldn’t believe what he’d just witnessed.

Good Cop: I can’t either. But we’re here. And this band is great! What a cool doublebill it’s been, two venues, two great bands. That’s George Sempepos on lead guitar, I can’t see who’s playing bass or drums, and that’s Steve Antonakos on guitar too.

Bad Cop: They used to have an electric oud. Now that was wild. Psychedelic Greek surf music. I remember coming back from seeing them at the Blu Lounge in Williamsburg, this must have been around 2003 or so, completely shitfaced, this is at about four in the morning and I’m waiting forever at 14th Street for the F and I’d recorded the show so I pulled out my recorder and started blasting the Byzan-tones right there on the platform. And everybody was down with it.

Good Cop: You’re lucky you didn’t get arrested.

Bad Cop: Nobody arrests me!

Good Cop: OK. Now I can’t keep track of whether these songs are originals, or they’re psychedelic rock hits from Greece in the 1960s.

Bad Cop: My understanding is that they’re originals. But they sound like old Mediterranean stoner music. Except with more of a surf beat. Now this version of the band is a little brighter and a lot tighter than I remember them being.

Good Cop: And look, the crowd is really into this! This is music from a culture that doesn’t even use our alphabet and peeps are loving this! And the place is so packed that we can’t even get into the back room!

Bad Cop: Hold your fire. We would be able to if this was Lakeside. Oh yeah, Lakeside is gone now. But you get my point. And besides, it’s surf night, half the crowd came from Connecticut, they’re not going to leave for awhile. Captive audience. What every band needs in this century in this town.

Good Cop: Lots of Arabic sounds in this band. And minor keys, and tricky tempos. I can’t figure out what this one is in.

Bad Cop: Me neither. I’ve been drinking since before I left for the Parkside. Sorry.

Good Cop: Now this song is called Pontic Pipeline. Doesn’t sound like Pipeline, though.

Bad Cop: I think the reference is a little…um…what’s the word I want? Oblique? How does that sound ?

Good Cop: Sounds like Arabic rock to me. I love this band, and how the two guitars sometimes harmonize…and how Steve fakes how he’s playing with a slide even though he’s just bending the strings…and now George is singing. In a low, cool baritone, in Greek! What’s the likelihood of seeing something like this outside of Astoria?

Bad Cop: Or outside of Athens.

Good Cop: Point taken. OK, time to go. What a cool night this was! I can’t wait to do this again!

Bad Cop [pulls a flask from inside his trenchcoat and drains it]: OK, see you in July. Or in Col…I mean Scranton.

Bad Guys Take Care of Business on Their Home Turf

The nonsequential current history of good music in New York continues today with Magges, who played a marathon show in lovely, tree-lined, well-shaded Athens Square Park in Astoria Tuesday night. “No Greek disco….only the music we grew up with, and love,” explained bandleader/electric bouzouki virtuoso Kyriakos Metaxas. The son of Evangelos Metaxas of the popular Trio Bel Canto, he’s keeping a legacy alive with this group, whose name is Greek slang for “bad guys” or “cool cats.” Magges’ website calls their repertoire “country music from another country.” This time out, the well-loved Greek-American band mixed up long medleys of folk tunes, hits from the 60s and ended with a long set of rembetiko, or as Metaxas put it, “Greek blues,” the haunting Middle Eastern-flavored, mostly minor-key songs from the underground resistance against the dictatorship of the 1930s and 40s, which was the stuff that resonated most intensely with the crowd. Since this was a public park, they didn’t bring along the ouzo that they share with the crowd at rock clubs. But the music was no less intense, and drew a similarly ecstatic reaction from the crowd. Along with the bouzoukis of Metaxas and Nick Mandoukos, the ubiquitously brilliant Susan Mitchell played violin alongside equally ubiquitous and brilliant acoustic guitarist Steve Antonakos (who didn’t take any of his famous solos), plus Ken Forrest on upright bass and Spiros Edgos on drums.

It was kind of funny how although a lot of the music had an American rock influence, the songs that rocked the hardest were the most indelibly Greek-flavored ones. They opened with a swaying, minor-key anthem with a gypsy-rock feel, Mitchell’s violin textures stark beneath the spiky, richly intertwined harmonies of the two bouzoukis. She took the first of several shivery microtonal solos on the second one after one by Metaxas, over a stately, almost martial groove; then they segued into a tangoish number with hauntingly gorgeous Arabic-tinged modes. A lively, sprightly Macedonian-style dance; a bubbly, upbeat tune with the bouzoukis leapfrogging the highest frets and what sounded like a warier, more angst-driven version of the same song followed.

Mitchell gave a psychedelic folk number from the 60s a chamber-pop feel with layers of lush atmospherics as the bouzoukis traded rapidfire licks. Like another song later in the set, it could have been a cumbia if they’d slowed it down a little: despite being from the other side of the globe, it sounded a lot like the Peruvian surf rock of Chicha Libre or Los Destellos. They slowed it down with a swaying Mediterranean ballad, then played a gypsy cimbalom tune on the bouzoukis and brought back the cumbia-ish bounce. Then they went into the rembetiko, which is when the dancing, and several spontaneous singalongs and clapalongs emerged throughout the crowd. Mataxas opened the first tune with a long, ominous solo taqsim, the rest of the band following him into the shadows, where they stayed for most of the rest of the evening. Suspenseful Arabic scales pulsed and then soared over rhythms that varied from slinky to martial to defiantly exuberant. One was a dead ringer for the French Revolutionary anthem Les Partisans; the single best song of the night was the next-to-last one, a furtive, chillingly apprehensive theme that paired off Mitchell’s violin against a plaintive thicket of Middle Eastern melody ringing and clanking from the strings of the bouzoukis. Magges have a brand-new album out simply titled 12 Tragouthia [12 Songs]; watch this space for upcoming NYC dates, whether indoors or out. And fans of Italian folk music can check out the weekly Wednesday 7 PM series of concerts here that continue through August 29.