Being in New York is a mixed blessing a lot of the time these days. Musically speaking, it means that you miss out on all kinds of good stuff if you aren’t hooked into one expatriate scene or another . For example, Mad Meg have a devoted following in the Russian community, although they aren’t as well known outside that demimonde – and they ought to be. They’re sort of a mashup of all sorts of good, moodily carnivalesque acts – Gogol Bordello, Nick Cave and Botanica, just for starters. They’ve got a new album, the sardonically titled Puberty Tales – streaming at Bandcamp – and an album release show this Thursday, Sept 29 at 9:45 PM at Drom. Cover is $10.
The band played a tantalizing preview for this show with an expansive, theatrical set at the end of last week at Alexandre Gertsman Contemporary Art, THE go-to gallery for A-list Russian artists these days. Despite the fact that the band was playing practically all acoustic, they held a packed house rapt for practically an hour on an impromptu stage. Frontman Ilya Popenko swooped and circled out into the crowd: tall and wiry, decked out in a black suit, the Cave resemblance is unmistakable. But he’s the rare, distinctive artist who’s as adept at music as he is with visuals. His twisted Photoshopped tableaux – substituting his face for a series of twisted characters coiled up in corners, schmoozing sardonically around a holiday table or engaging in all sorts of sordid behavior – are as funny as his series based on the cult favorite Soviet cartoon Gena the Crocodile.
The album is as witheringly cynical as it is catchy. Over a frantic, horn-fueled circus rock pulse, Popenko explains that the Circling the Drain Dance is a global phenomenon. “Play whatever music that makes you less annoyed, say hello to people that you still don’t avoid.” It’s the prequel to Botanica’s Castration Tango.
With its flashy piano intro, Engineer is a mashup of Botanica art-rock and Tom Waits saloon blues, with a little Hunky Dory-era Bowie thrown in. Livable Lovable Life sets Jason Laney’s trippy, echoey Wurlitzer electric piano and a sarcastic horn chart to a furtive swing, the missing link between Dark Side-era Floyd and Botanica. Moscow Song disguises a classic Pretenders bassline – and coyly references another 80s new wave hit – underneath menacing lounge lizard piano.
Polish Girl switches between an organ-driven noir waltz and some neat counterpoint between growly baritone sax and accordion, the tale of a gold-digging girl “majoring in volleyball and all sorts of interesting games.” Scary People tales a scampering detour toward disco: “Sitting in the forest, drinking their PBR’s,” Popenko intones, trading rasps with James Hall’s trombone: “I’m not ever going out, never going out there.” Words of wisdom for anybody contemplating a train ride to Bushwick.
The piano-and-resonator-guitar textures throughout the surrealistic Sky Grows Taller are s psychedelic as they are plaintive. Sunday Nights takes an even more surreal turn toward psychedelic soul: “I’m just a little beat, not an alcoholic,” Popenko snarls. The Very Last Train is the sneaky killer cut here with its swirly organ solo and mix of noir swing, disco and Romany punk. And Torn follows a hypnotically nocturnal Jesus & Mary Chain sway. Blast this at your next party and you’re guaranteed to get at least one “Who is this?” or “Which Gogol Bordello album is this?”