Guitarist/pianist Jeff Morris is the mastermind behind mighty, darkly harmony-fueled art-rock/circus rock/noir cabaret/salsa swing band Kotorino. Ellia Bisker plays ukulele and fronts catchy, lyrically driven indie pop band Sweet Soubrette. Together they are Charming Disaster, whose new album of murder ballads, Love, Crime & Other Trouble – streaming at Bandcamp – is one of the most twistedly delicious noir albums of recent years. They seem to have had so much fun making it that they ended up bringing in most of Kotorino in the process. Charming Disaster’s next show is on Jan 27 at 8 PM at Silvana on 116th St., down the hill from Morningside Heights, about a block from the C train.
Two things immediately distinguish Charming Disaster from the many other would-be hitmen with murder ballads. Where so many of those songs come out of the folk and country traditions, Charming Disaster’s are more urban, and urbane. A closer listen reveals little Raymond Chandler-esque vignettes with all kinds of unexpected narrative twists and ghoulish humor that manages not to be campy. Bisker’s ability to change her voice to suit the song, whether with a petulant hint of New Jersey or a brassy oldtime swing delivery, informs how she channels the various dangerous dames here.
The opening track, Ghost Story, begins with a gorgeous interweave of guitar and uke and rises toward Spectorish proportions as Bisker unveils a tale about a woman who’s haunted by not one but two ghosts, and how everybody got to where they are, dead or alive. Ocean City comes across as a more skittish, shuffling take on what Springsteen captured in another low-budget coastal town, pushed along by Mike Brown’s bass and Jerome Morris’ drums.
With its tinkling saloon piano, the Weimar blues-tinged Showgirl is a duet, a wickedly sardonic tale that reminds that corruption in the NYPD goes way, way back. Wolf Song recasts 80s goth rock as a delicate acoustic nocturne with a big brass-fueled crescendo from trombonist Cecil Scheib and trumpeter Jesse Selengut. Artichoke blends ghoulabilly with Romany jazz and noir cabaret in a Tom Waits vein. One of the best tracks here, Secretary, paints a ghoulish picture of a real femme fatale over an eerie staccato guitar bounce a la Iggy’s The Passenger: this girl always smells like smoke even though she’s never been known to step out of the office for one.
Morris and Bisker intertwine voices on Grifters, a cynical Depression-era con artists’ tale set to another ominously swinging, Waits-flavored shuffle. They pick up the pace with the roaring, punk-flavored, grisly Osiris, an aptly shapeshfitting number and the album’s most straightforward track. They keep the energy at knife’s edge with Deep in the High, a cruelly carnivalesque number about a couple unraveling fast.
The most suspenseful track here is Knife Thrower, a lushly menacing look at the symbiotic relationship between a carnival couple with some gorgeously deep-sky steel guitar from Morris. The album winds up with the uneasy I Know You Know, a bittersweet love song with a dark undercurrent. If you aren’t hooked on this by now, there’s no hope for you. You should also grab the band’s 2013 debut single, Murderer b/w East River Ferry Waltz, a free download also up at their Bandcamp page.