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Tag: Heather Cole violin

A Lusciously Layered, Anthemic New Art-Rock Record From Charlie Nieland

The 2020 totalitarian takeover didn’t stop Lusterlit mastermind Charlie Nieland from making another album: he pretty much did it himself, with a little help from outside. His latest release, Divisions – streaming at Bandcamp – is much more lush and majestically textured than you would expect, considering the circumstances. Predictably, it’s more guitar-centric than Lusterlit, although the songs are just as darkly luminous, with echoes of 80s goth and 90s Britrock. And they’re catchy as hell.

His trebly guitar through a cheap amp explodes into a majestic roar in the slow, swaying opening anthem, Always on Fire. Kleptocrats in basic black populate this grim, arson-infested gentrification-era Brooklyn tableau. Nieland is a one-man band, blending all the guitars, bass and keys, with a rotating drum chair shared by Brian Geltner, Billy Loose and Lusterlit’s Susan Hwang.

Nieland’s icy chorus-box chords and keening slide lines linger over hypnotic, suspensefully droning bass in the album’s title track: if Wire played long songs with an American accent, this might qualify as such.

Exploding is a catchy, bulked-up, artfully layered powerpop ballad. Violinist Heather Cole and cellist Patricia Santos build a lushly orchestrated coda in The Falling Man, which could be the Jayhawks taking a stab at a mid-90s Blur song. Then Nieland strips down the sound for I Refuse, a buzzy fuzz bass-driven new wave tune that wouldn’t be out of place in the Dada Paradox catalog.

He builds an insistent, minimalist menace before bringing the echoey guitars into The Land of Accidents, a broodingly rhythmic existentialist exploration. Meta Incognita, a metaphorically loaded explorer’s tale, has a tricky 15/4 beat and lush synth orchestration over insistent guitars.

Another Night on Earth is slower and starrier: the Eels meet Stereolab. Tightrope is not the ELO classic but an original, and it’s the album’s catchiest anthem, Hwang a one-woman choir wafting overhead.

Then Santos becomes the orchestra in Skin, a dreamy ballad, the Smiths without the pout. Nieland turns up the chilly guitars in So Few Have So Much, a swaying, syncopated dreampop song.

The allusively ominous Some Things You Keep to Yourself and the album’s closing cut, Pawns, could be late-80s Siouxsie with a guy out front – and superior production.

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A Deviously Dark New Masterpiece and a Joe’s Pub Show From Creepy Duo Charming Disaster

Charming Disaster aren’t just the creepiest guy/girl harmony duo in folk noir. They’re also a songwriting superduo. Since the late zeros, guitarist Jeff Morris has led mighty noir mambo/circus rock band Kotorino. When singer/ukulele player Ellia Bisker – leader of majestic existentialist soul band Sweet Soubrette – joined his group, that springboarded a series of collaborations that led to the duo’s debut collection of original murder ballads. Since then, they’ve become a touring powerhouse and have expanded their sound to include dark and death-obsessed narratives set to increasingly and expertly diverse musical backdrops. Their latest album Spells and Rituals is streaming at Bandcamp. They’re playing Joe’s Pub on August 22 at 9 PM; cover is $15.

They open the record with Blacksnake, a slinky clave tune about a pair of lovers who’ve gotten in too deep for their own good. All this bliss just might kill them: “Is it just hallucination or the ergot on the rye?” they ask as what may be an apocalypse looms on the horizon. There’s also a funny fourth wall-breaking reference to percussion equipment; see the band live and you’ll get it.

Although the duo do an impressive job playing multiple instruments onstage to bulk up their sound, there’s a full band on the album. Wishing Well, a Merseybeat-tinged janglerock tune has Don Godwin doing double duty on bass and drums along with the handclaps to propel its allusively suicidal narrative. Baba Yaga, a shout out to the popular witch from Russian mythology, has a scampering horror surf-tinged groove; there’s no Moussourgsky quote, although that’s the kind of thing they’d slip in when playing it live.

Devil May Care, with its wry Biblical allusions and Tex-Mex tinges, is a hoot. “You’ve got a right to get in trouble,’ is the refrain. Llithe strings add to the distant menace , alongside Jessie Kilguss’ droning harmonium. Bisker’s sultry tones enhance the sinister ambience over Morris’ gorgeously bittersweet guitar jangle in Blue Bottle Blues, a swinging number about poisoning.

Heart of Brass is a throwback to Kotorino’s adventures in sardonic steampunk storytelling, Morris and Bisker in counterpoint over tinkling glass bells and a hypnotic sway. From there they blend Beatles and classic 60s country balladry in the slightly more lighthearted, metaphorically loaded cross-country narrative Keep Moving.

Menacing circus-rock piano (that’s either Morris or Bisker; both play keys on the album) and strings (Heather Cole on violin and Patricia Santos on cello) build operatic drama in Belladonna. “The ambulance sang my name more times than once,” Morris and Bisker harmonize in Fire Eater, a broodingly orchestrated, Balkan brass-tinged parable about the perils of thrill-seeking. They stomp their way through the catchy Laurel Canyon psychedelia of the monstrously funny Be My Bride of Frankenstein and close the album with the cynical, scampering garage rock spoof Soft Apocalypse. Dark music has seldom been this much fun – and these two put on a hell of a show.

Sweet Soubrette Release One of 2015’s Best Concerts As a Live Album

It’s a hot indian summer night outside Joe’s Pub, the shadows from the dark tower a block away just beginning to suck the light from the streets to the east of Astor Place. Inside, the man in the long black coat stretches out his legs underneath a table about twenty feet from the stage. With the back of his hand, he wipes his brow: he’s overdressed for this time of year. Across the table a couple beam and whoop it up. Somebody in the band – the drummer, as it turns out -is a friend, and they’re there to make sure he gets props.

Sweet Soubrette take the stage to what will be the most rousing applause of the night (Kotorino will play a ferocious, lustrously latin-tinged set of artsy, noir rock afterward). The man in the long black coat pulls his recorder from his pocket, presses a button and glances at it quizzically. As the lights dim, he pulls out his phone, illuminating the gadget’s digital display. Exhaling, dismayed, he clicks off both devices, pockets them in his coat and leans back to watch the show.

Frontwoman/ukulele player Ellia Bisker opens the set with a bouncy number, All That Glitters, her voice more weary than brassy as she channels the cynicism of a gold-digger working her latest mark. With NYU – where a thousand undergrad women have signed up as employees of an online prostitution ring in order to pay their tuition – a few blocks away, the song resonates in a new context. Next is Sweet Time, a soul ballad recast as oldtimey Americana on the wings of Heather Cole’s violin. “The song kind of undermines the message…just so you know,” Bisker tells the crowd coyly.

The man in the long black coat is restless, but Bisker is on a roll with her banter. “We have songs about a lot of normal things…like most bands,” she explains, deadpan and serious. “But we also have songs about books – a lot of books.” She explains that this one was inspired by Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, then launches into a propulsive take of the moody Burning City, the horn section – John Waters on trumpet, Cecil Scheib on trombone and Erin Rogers on alto sax- bobbing and weaving.

“So you have all these experiences…but you retain nothing, and you learn nothing, and nothing helps you,” the bandleader tells the audience, and then begins the achingly waltzing, saturnine Wake Up When, a chronicle of missed chances and lost hopes. By now the man in the long black coat is on the edge of his seat, watching as the lush wash of strings and horns rises.

“You come to a moment in your life, a crossroads…decisions, and you know what whatever you choose, you’re going to regret it,” Bisker continues – at this point, a pattern is clear, this concert has a theme and a trajectory:

The ghost ship of the life you didn’t choose
Is the one you know will never carry you
There are moments you get a glimpse
From the corner of your eye
And all you can do is watch it sail on by

Bisker misses a downstroke on her uke at one point; crushing poignancy, all the more so for not being part of the plan.

The show takes a turn into less harrowing territory with a sardonically pouting new soul ballad, (You Don’t) Talk to Me, awash in oldschool Memphis-style horns. Then drummer Darrell Smith hits a trip-hop beat as the group make their way through Big Celebrity and its sarcastic John Waters-esque allusions.

“We’re coming to the end, not just the end of our time here, but the end of our time at all, really. I’m just a truth sayer,” Bisker relates before Night Owls, another waltz. “Blow out the candle, we see in the dark,” she intones with a quiet defiance over the wash of orchestration. The concert ends with the Anais Nin-inspired anthem What’s My Desire: “She made the unspeakable speakable, and we admire her for that,” Bisker tells everyone.

Months later, the man in the long black coat reaches to his Macbook and types in Sweet Soubrette’s webpage. What might they be up to? As it turns out, Bisker is busy this month. Sweet Soubrette are at Rock Shop on January 14 at 10 PM for a $10 cover, with hauntingly anthemic folk noir/janglerock bandleader Jessie Kilguss opening the night at 8. Kotorino, to which Bisker lends her torchy harmonies, are at Barbes the previous night, the 13th, at 8. And her murderously entertaining parlor-pop murder ballad duo Charming Disaster, with Kotorino’s Jeff Morris are at Pete’s on the 9th, also at 8.

Clicking on the Sweet Soubrette music page, the man in the long black coat does a doubletake. That concert at Joe’s Pub was recorded and has been released as a live album, a name-your-price download at bandcamp! So much for not having enough memory in the recorder back in September! And the band also have a new single, Take It Easy, an ironically uneasy parlor-pop number.

Sweet Soubrette and Kotorino Haunt Joe’s Pub

Did Ellia Bisker, leader of elegant existentialist chamber pop band Sweet Soubrette, make a quantum leap…or did she have those lush, poignant, unselfconsciously brilliant songs in her all along? Her emergence among New York’s songwriting elite dovetailed suspiciously with her joining forces with the more established and similarly brilliant Jeff Morris – leader of latin/circus rock/art-rock luminaries Kotorino – in the murder ballad project Charming Disaster. Whatever the case, the Sweet Soubrette/Kotorino twinbill at Joe’s Pub a week ago had to be one of this year’s best New York concerts, hands down.

Sweet Soubrette have been through several incarnations: the current version, with its terse, richly arranged horn charts and frequent echoes of classic soul music, is by far the best. Heather Cole’s violin dipped and soared over Bob Smith’s nimble bass and Darrell Smith’s jazz-inflected, low-key drums as the horns – John Waters on trumpet, Cecil Scheib on trombone and Erin Rogers on alto sax – provided lustrous, vintage Memphis-inspired, resonant harmonies. Bisker played ukulele, singing in a confident but angst-drenched alto that really kicked into gear in the lows: she’s made a quantum leap as a singer as well.

A coy gold-digger’s tale was an early highlight. On album, the band does Burning City – inspired by the account of the bombing of Berlin in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five – as moodily dancing art-rock, but here it had a more purposeful drive and heavier gravitas. The newest songs were the best: the sardonically pensive waltz Wake Up When pondered how little we retain from what should be life lessons, while Talk To Me explored the futility of breaking out of one’s aloneness and actually communicating. The catchiest number of the entire night, Ghost Ship, bopped along on a new wave Motown bassline, Bisker’s deadpan, staccato vocals building on a sort of catch/release dynamic: it would be a standout track in the Serena Jost catalog. The set wound up with the understatedly venomous oldschool soul-inflected Big Celebrity and its thinly veiled references to gentrifier status-grubbing, then the broodingly balmy, doomed wee-hours scenario Night Owls, and finally some comic relief in the form of a song-length shout-out to Anais Nin. “Let’s find out what’s stronger, my pen or your sword,” Bisker demanded.

She returned to the stage as Morris’ femme fatale foil in Korotino, who killed it, as usual. On any given night, they might be the best live band in town: that they could earn a roaring ovation by closing with a suicide song speaks for itself. While Morris has gone deeper and deeper into his pan-latin side in recent months, this show focused more on the band’s phantasmagorical, surrealist rock catalog. The dizzyingly syncopated, doomed minor-key cha-cha Never Had a Chance was a red herring of sorts, fueled by the devious rimshot drive of drummer Jerome Morris (Jeff’s brother) in tandem with Mike Brown’s sinewy bass and the horn section of Gato Loco‘s Stefan Zeniuk (who switched from bass sax, to bass clarinet and then tenor sax) and lively trumpeter Jesse Selengut. Violinist Estelle Bajou’s menacingly slitherly lines mirrored Cole’s approach in Sweet Soubrette – or was it the other way around?

Morris is another guy who’s never sung better, coming across as sort of an exasperated Joel Grey at the peak of his powers, armed with a hollowbody Gibson, the awestruck, epically shapeshifting steampunk adventure Oh My God giving him plenty of chances to air out his pipes. From there the band made their way through moodily strutting Weimar cabaret rock, building to a dixieland-flavored peak with the horns.The frantically swinging circus rock of Going Out Tonight contrasted with the angst-fueled, eerily misty vocal harmonies of the angst-fueled waltz Planes Land.

The rest of the set worked the dynamics up and down without a respite: it was a pretty wild ride. They opened the droll, artsy new wave-flavored Sea Monster with a chugging ska bass-and-drum intro and built from there to the deliriously balletesque, swirling latin noir What Is This Thing. An especially menacing, nocturnal take of North Star State, Morris explained nonchalantly, explored the simple, everyday chore of breaking your girlfriend out of the nuthouse. They closed with a suspensefully dynamic take of that suicide anthem, Dangle Tango. Kotorino are at Rock Shop on Oct 3 at 8, opening for the even more theatrical Funkrust Brass Band; cover is $10. And Charming Disaster play Pete’s on Sept 30 at 10.

A Killer Debut Album and a Show Uptown by Charming Disaster

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.

Lush, Resonant Chamber Pop from Ukulele Tunesmith Sweet Soubrette

Ellia Bisker’s eclectic tunesmithing has recently taken a deliciously lurid, noir direction. Most recently, she’s joined forces with Kotorino frontman Jeff Morris, playing his femme fatale foil in that menacing circus-rock band as well as in the more stripped-down but equally dark duo Charming Disaster. So it’s no surprise that she’d color the songs on Burning City, the new album by her other project, Sweet Soubrette, with punchy brass and enigmatic, ominously hovering strings. Bisker has also taken her vocals to the next level: she’s got a lot more power and resonance in the lower registers these days. Her band here is excellent. Bisker plays uke, with Heather Cole on violin, Stacy Rock on piano, Bob Smith on bass, Mike Dobson and Don Godwin alternating behind the drum kit along with Erin Rogers on tenor sax, Carl Scheib on trombone and John Waters on trumpet.

Stylistically, the songs run the gamut. The opening track, Be My Man begins with an allusively latin feel and vamps up to to a vintage disco groove. The intriguingly moody, swaying chamber pop title track could be about the Arab/Israeli conflict, or citizens versus gentrifiers in New York City, or warfare in general. Charlatan, a piano ballad, offers an intriguing glimpse of a hardworking fortune teller who might or might not be the real thing. The catchiest, most upbeat number here is Just Your Heart, building to a coyly pulsing second-generation Motown vibe.

Homing Pigeon, which is just uke and violin, works an old country music trope, an endless series of variations on the same metaphor, Bisker running through the bird imagery for all it’s worth.  She does the same thing with electricity on Live Wire, which is a Pat Benetar-ish powerpop song disguised as eerily atmospheric chamber pop, and with stormy weather in Port in a Storm, a gently dancing country waltz. And Rock Paper Scissors gives the band the chance to work all kinds of neat dynamic shifts, back and forth between enigmatic, noirishly artsy pop and swirly circus rock. The remaining two tracks could have been left off and the album wouldn’t be any worse for it – top 40 is top 40, no matter how tasteful the arrangements or playing. Bisker plays the album release show for this one tonight, November 24 at 9 PM with excellent noir cabaret band Not Waving But Drowning opening at 7:30 at the Jalopy; cover is $10.