New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: instrumental music

Spot-On Protest Songs and Spare, Eclectic Guitar Instrumentals From Austin Legend Matt Smith

Multi-instrumentalist Matt Smith is one of the great guitarists in Americana, among many other things. These days, most importantly, he writes protest songs.

Check out How We Got to Here, a spare, fingerpicked, dobro-infused number from his most recent album Being Human. In under four minutes, he paints a grim picture of recent American history, from the coup d’etat in 2000, up to the lockdown and how social media has paralyzed so many of us when we’re needed most:

We all saw it coming but we’re too self-involved to stand
Against the ones back in the shadows who wait to implement the plan
When they told us this was normal and did not believe the news
We took pictures of our dinnes and proselytized our views

Smith finds optimism in historical rebellions against past tyrannies: let’s hope he’s right.

The rest of the record – streaming at youtube – mirrors Smith’s long career as a bandleader, sideman to the stars and owner of a recording studio, the 6 String Ranch, revered as one of the go-to spots if you really want a vintage Americana sound from across many decades. There’s another great protest song here, Sanctuary, a dusky minor-key Robert Cray-style blues about the xenophobia that South American refugees run up against once they cross the US border.

“Why does it feel like the sky is falling?” Smith asks in the cynical, loping title track. After that, Smith channels a vast range of styles ranging from early 80s Midnight Starr stoner funk, to the Who.

Smith also has a charming all-instrumental solo acoustic album, Parlor – streamin at Spotify – where he plays a beautifully restored heirloom 1890’s Thompson and Odell parlor guitar. Most of the tracks are on the short side, some less than two minutes. Blind Blake-inspired ragtime fingerpicking, Piedmont and delta blues, Yorkshire-style balladry, Indian music, Leo Kottke wizardry, and, improbably, indie rock all figure into Smith’s distinctive, sometimes stark, sometimes opaque compositions.

The Kolotov Mocktails Play Dynamic, Interesting, Subtly Amusing Cross-Genre Instrumentals

As you would imagine, instrumental jamband the Kolotov Mocktails have a sense of humor. The mocktail part of the band might be a characteristically wry admission of how many styles and ideas they appropriate; and yet, they are absolutely unique. Their songs tend to be upbeat, the solos are purposeful and the tunes are catchy. Their latest album Ivy Hall is streaming at Spotify.

They open with Between the Ranges, a lively Grateful Dead-style instrumental by drummer Rob McKendrick. Violinist George Mason’s wildly spiraling solo is a highlight; the southern rock quotes at the end are predictably amusing.

Mason and pedal steel player Dave Easley take centerstage in Dancing on the Wall, McKendrick and bassist John Lang giving it a tight jazz waltz beat. Lang contributes Mr. Pants Pants, which could be the Alan Parsons Project with a more organic groove, guest Allan Walters’ Scottish smallpipes mingling with the layers of keys.

Easley contributes A Visit to the Zoo: with his percussive hammer-ons and ambiguously lingering lines, along with Mason’s long, moody solo, this seems to reflect the inhabitants’ unease rather than a joyous family outing. The shift toward a marching raga, with Mason on guitar sitar, makes for an unexpected coda.

The group shift back toward newgrass rock with Acoustic Alchemy, a brisk number in an Old Crow Medicine Show vein. Fueled by Lang’s strutting, circling bassline, Coming to an Alley Near You is a bizarrely entertaining mashup of Jean-Luc Ponty, Kraftwerk and maybe Dave Tronzo in a particularly terse moment. Likewise, imagine Ponty trying his hand at Meters funk in, say, 1974 – with a pedal steel – and you get The Fuzz.

Mason and Easley trade punchy riffs in Raw Eel Sheets, a similarly mind-warping blend of Django Reinhardt and New Orleans funk. The Crack of Noon features Walters on the pipes again: it could be a Greer Coppins tune, or the Dead taking a stab at a highlands air. The band segue from there to close the record with Time Ebbing: the guitar/violin duel is pure Terrapin Station. If you smell something skunky and smoky coming from under your neighbor’s door, it might be this album.

Wild, Surreal, Psychedelic Keyboard Mashups From Brian Charette

The latest artist to defiy the odds and put the grim early days of the lockdown to good use is Brian Charette, arguably the most cutting-edge organist in jazz. As you will see on his new solo album, Like the Sun – streaming at his music page – he plays a whole slew of other styles. Challenging himself to compose and improvise against a wild bunch of rhythmic loops in all sorts of weird time signatures, he pulled together one of his most entertaining records. This one’s definitely the most surreal, psychedelic and playful of all of them – and he has made a lot.

Basically, this is a guy alone in his man cave mashing up sounds as diverse as twinkly Hollywood Hills boudoir soul, squiggly dancefloor jams, P-Funk stoner interludes, Alan Parsons Project sine-wave vamps and New Orleans marches, most of them ultimately under the rubric of organ jazz.

At the heart of the opening track, 15 Minutes of Fame lies a catchy gutbucket Hammond organ riff and variations…in this case surrounded by all sorts of warpy textures and strange, interwoven rhythms. Time Piece, the second track, could be a synthy late 70s ELO miniature set to a shuffly drum machine loop, with a rapidfire B3 crescendo.

Slasher is not a horror theme but a reference to a chord with an unusual bass note – as Charette says in his priceless liner notes, “If they can get along, why can’t we?” This one’s basically a soul song without words with some tricky changes.

Honeymoon Phase could be a balmy Earth Wind and Fire ballad, Charette’s layers of keys taking the place of the brass. He builds the album’s title track around an Arabic vocal sample, with all sorts of wry touches surrounding a spacy, catchy theme and variations in 5/8 time.

Mela’s Cha Cha – inspired by Charette’s wife, the electrifyingly multistylistic singer Melanie Scholtz – is what might have happened if George Clinton, Larry Young and Ruben Blades were all in the same room together circa 1983. Three Lights has a warmly exploratory groove over a catchy bassline and a hypnotic syndrum beat.

Break Tune is a rare opportunity to hear Charette play guitar, adding a little Muscle Shoals flavor to this gospel-tinged, Spike Lee-influenced mashup. You might not expect a melody ripped “from a punchy synth brass preset on the Korg Minilogue,” as Charette puts it, or changes influenced by the great Nashville pianist Floyd Cramer in an organ jazz tune, but that’s what Charette is up to in From Like to Love.

Creole is a more traditional number, with a New Orleans-inflected groove and a handful of devious Joni Mitchell quotes. 7th St. Busker, inspired by a cellist playing on the street in the West Village, follows in the same vein but with a strange vocal sample underneath the good-natured, reflective organ solo.

Robot Heart would make a solid hip-hop backing track; Charette closes the record with 57 Chevy, a funky shout-out to Dr. Lonnie Smith, who goes back to that era.

Darkly Enveloping, Vastly Symphonic Atmospherics From Elif Yalvaç

It’s impossible to imagine a more inspiringly apt title for an album released in 2020 than ambient composer Elif Yalvaç’s Mountains Become Stepping Stones, streaming at Bandcamp. May we someday look back and see how accurate her metaphor was. And it should be, dammit: there are seven billion of us and only a few thousand, maybe many less, actively plotting or enforcing the lockdown. We have the numbers!

This is a long album and a great wind-down record. The opening track is Broken Spectre, shifting through storm-drain sonics, channel-changing blips, crescendoing loops and then calm. Under the Aurora is built around a couple of spare, plaintive minor seventh guitar chords and morphs into a surreal blend of clock chimes and white noise. Yalvaç revisits the theme later in the album as a rainy-day spacerock anthem cloaked in dense clouds.

Sketchy, gritty echoes, dopplers and majestic whooshes pan the channels in Painted In Pitch Black. Stormy waves of sound surround a simple C-A-B loop in Breaking My Rose Tinted Glasses. In the next track, Huginn and Muninn, Yalvaç constructs similarly looming density around what sounds like a nest of ravens.

Icily processed jazz chords ring out over echoey washes in Black Sand Beach. The waves grow longer in Bifroest, while Freak Box could be R2D2 under siege – or in lockdown, for that matter, finally escaping (escaping?) into the storm drain introduced in the album’s initial track.

Tense industrial low/high contrasts resonate in Mossy Moon; Two Compartments follows the same dynamic, blips and nebulosity versus barely concealed roar and rumble. Yalvaç closes this stormy dreamscape of an album with the unexpectedly delicate Kintsugi, its pinging web of temple bells and forest sounds.

Ride the Highway to Hell with the Death Wheelers

The Death Wheelers play heavy psychedelic rock instrumental soundtracks to imaginary sleazy biker flicks. They like gritty, gear-grinding bass, heavy drums and guitar textures that shift from sandpaper distortion to blue-flame Lynchian twang, Their new album Divine Filth – streaming at Bandcamp – is the heaviest one yet.

They open with a swooshy, crunchy title theme that’s over in less than two minutes, slide guitar hovering over Max Tremblay’s chainsaw downtuned bass and Richard Turcotte’s drums. Ditchfinder General is an epic mashup of a twisted ba-BUMP theme as early Sabbath would have done it, along with the Stooges’ TV Eye, thrash metal and spaghetti western textures.

Suicycle Tendencies is a heavy biker theme: imagine Agent Orange covering a Davie Allan & the Arrows tune, with an outro by Sabbath. The title track is a gritty battle theme where the whole gang unites against the enemy, throttles rumbling at full volume beneath Ed Desaulniers and Hugo Bertacci’s shreddy wah guitars.

Lobotomobile, a creepy spiderwalking horror surf tune, is the album’s most gleefully phantasmagorical track. Corps Morts starts off like a heavier Radio Birdman, decays to grim sludge and then rises from the lagoon. Murder Machines – Biker Mortis, true to its title, is part horror film theme, part evilly strutting Harley chopper rock.

The voiceover that kicks off Motorgasm – Canal Pleasures Pt. 1 is pretty priceless: the song. part Isaac Hayes psychedelic funk, part crunchy stoner riff-rock, is just as tongue-in-cheek. Chopped Back to Life is a 70s stoner boogie repurposed as crispy all-terrain vehicle music.

Road Rite shifts between hardcore punk and a strutting, vaguely Stonesy tune. The group close the record with Nitrus, a pummeling horror surf number, like Strange But Surf with distortion and a chunkier rhythm section. It’s the band’s best album so far and one of the most entertainingly cinematic releases of the year.

A Broodingly Gorgeous, Haunted New Soundtrack From Morricone Youth

What’s more Halloweenish than porn? You want real-life abduction, torture and worse?

Dating back to the late 90s, Morricone Youth have scored a daunting number of films, many of them classics from the silent era. Their latest release is the original score to Kire Papputs’ The Last Porno Show, a suspense flick about a kid who inherits a seedy Brooklyn X-rated theatre and decides to try to monetize it despite formidable odds. If the band’s composer/frontman/guitarist Devon E. Levins is to be believed, it’s an incredibly sad place. On one hand, this is an absolutely gorgeous soundtrack, streaming at Bandcamp. On the other, it really captures the hopelessness of an exploitative industry. Like all of Morricone Youth’s scores, it’s best experienced as a cohesive whole. For those who want a breakdown of the nitty gritty, here goes.

The main title theme is a trickily rhythmic, marionettish strut, part Angelo Badalamenti Twin Peaks score, part Tschaikovsky. Levins’ eerie, clanging multitracks ring out over a brooding 6/8 groove from bassist John Castro and drummer Brian Kantor in one of the longer, more haunting interludes, Method Acting.

The coldly methodical third track, sarcastically titled Best Show XXX in Town, sways above Scott Hollingsworth’s orchestral keys. Sean McCaul’s echoey vibraphone sets the stage for a tense scene in Al’s Apartment. An audition for something is involved, Dan Kessler’s Rhodes electric piano and the bandleader’s gritty surf guitar reverberating over an eerie Ethiopian pulse.

From there the music gets quieter and more melancholy. Levins breaks out his glockenspiel for creepy twinkle, viola sorceress Karen Waltuch and torchy chanteuse Sami Stevens waft into an increasingly zombie-ish picture (something the band excel at – their George Romero soundtracks are to die for).

Motorik loops give way to sarcastic 70s vintage keys lowlit by Levins’ desolate, spare guitar and finally a rise to a big, menacing peak. Levins brings the score full circle with surprising subtlety. It’s been a cruelly bleak year for albums and the arts in general: good thing we still have these irrepressible, increasingly iconic soundtrackers.

Some Sobering Context For Tredici Bacci’s Latest Funny Video

Tredici Bacci make very funny videos. But the best joke in the lavish, cinematic band’s latest one, Defino De Venezia, is musical rather than visual. It starts at about 1:58 – but it won’t be as funny if you don’t watch from the beginning

What’s most amazing about it is that all seventeen people who play on it recorded their parts while sequestered – via Zoom, most likely. This is a case study in how video connections enable musicmaking, but also how they imperil it. On one hand, getting seventeen people in seventeen different places to sound anything like a cohesive unit is quite the feat. Bandleader Simon Hanes obviously went deep into his address book for the talent to pull this off (musician credits are listed below the video).

Let’s also give props to mixing engineer Myles Boisen for whatever mojo he was able to work to tighten everything up.

And that right there is the problem. You can’t fault anybody involved with the project, really. It’s just that Tredici Bacci are a funny band. Onstage they tend to be loose and spontaneous, and they can swing like hell. And that kind of magic, which really defines them, is missing here. Everybody seems so fixated on getting their parts right that there’s literally no chemistry. Which testifies to the limits of this kind of technology.

Obviously, anybody can take a stab at improvising over a video connection. But the camaraderie that enables a good jam can never be there. Not to be a killjoy, but ultimately this only underscores the undeniable truth that virtual reality can never be more than a pale imitation of the real thing, good jokes or not. And it’s frustrating to have to wait for the day when all this madness is over and we can see Tredici Bacci play live, for real, and not from six feet away. Ok, six feet away from the band, for sure, but not from each other.

Vivid String-and-Piano Tableaux From Drum and Lace

Drum and Lace a.k.a. film composer Sofia Hultquist’s tantalizingly short album Semi Songs – streaming at her music page– comprises a quartet of bracingly tuneful, often hypnotically circling instrumentals for violin, two cellos and piano. You could call it minimalism, or new classical music: however you categorize it, this brief, verdant release leaves you wanting more.

The album begins and ends with a diptych, Outsider Complex. The first part opens with a burst of strings followed by some furious, machete-chop sixteenth notes. The piano joins the frenzy, then recedes with a brooding elegance; the strings follow as the song calms before a final volley. As terse and minimalistic as this is at heart, it takes serious chops to play. To wind it up, the piano rises to a loopy insistence, strings leading to a moody lull and tantalizing hints of what will eventually be a deliciously ominous return to tightly orchestrated savagery.

There are two other tracks. The swaying, summery Parhelion begins with a loopy contrast between stark, insistent cello and hazy violin; then the two switch roles as the harmonic web grows more complex, a rondo of sorts. Coyly bouncy piano suddenly leaps in; it ends brightly.

The epic, fourteen-minute Gardenia has a slower, more pensive sway, spacious piano chords and a steady, lullaby-like melody that begins to sound completely improvised. A light, echoey electronic drone moves toward the forefront as the strings echo each other; the piano kicks off the first of several successive rounds of circular riffs. Composer Matt McBane’s ensemble Build comes to mind, although Drum and Lace’s music is more springlike, closer in spirit if not in sound to Vivaldi than, say, Bach.

Saluting a Century of the Wacky, Versatile First Electronic Instrument

Now that live music – and movies, and sports, and museums, and galleries – in New York have been shut down by the coronavirus scare, what can a person do for entertainment? Spring is here: you could go for a good, long run…or listen to a creepy fifty-one track album of theremin music. Or do both at once – it’s on Bandcamp.

To be fair, the NY Theremin Society’s compilation album Theremin 100 isn’t always creepy. While Russian scientist Leon Theremin’s 1920 invention may be most readily recognized for its uncanny evocations of creaky doors in a million horror movies, there are thousands of artists from around the world who have mastered the granddaddy of all sci-fi instruments’ magical force field for both good and evil. A lot of them are on this record. And one of the best, Pamelia Stickney – who’s surprisingly not on it – had a scheduled gig on March 20 at the Owl, but like pretty much everything going on around town, it’s been cancelled.

The album’s first track, Christopher Payne’s Somnambulist is a loopy, swoopy, chromatic nocturne that wouldn’t be out of place in a horror movie: are those strings and bass real, or an expert theremin imitation? Other tracks in the same vein include Herb Deutsch’s Longing – one of many with just theremin and darkly neoromantic piano, and Ei and Kuli Schreiber’s surreal tunnel narrative Train Jumper, at the top of a substantial list.

Often the theremin will evoke a violin, as in Peg Ming’s Therexotica, a gentle, brisk bolero with retro 50s twinkle; About Aphrodite’s lustrous Membran Music; or where Gregoire Blanc adds just a hint of shudder over eerily glimmering piano in Waves – with a bridge that’s too gleefully grisly to give away.

Therminal C’s Sputnik Crash powerfully demonstrates the instrument’s vast range and little-used percussive potential, as does Thorwald Jorgenson’s epic seaside tableau Distant Shores. The theremin gets backward masked in Hekla’s Twin Peaks pop tune Indenderro, used for squiggles and ominous banks of sound in Aetherghul’s Fire in the Sky, and an imploring vocal analogue in Jeff Pagano’s The Ancient Sea.

Some of the acts here employ a theremin for laughs. The Radio Science Orchestra contribute Atom Age Girl, a wry space-surf theme; Everling throws in his droll, bloopy Playing Theremin Is My Madness. The joke is simpler yet subtler in Hyperbubble’s I’m Your Satellite, while Robert Meyer’s deadpan teutonic boudoir groove Taxi is pretty ridiculous. Matt Dallow’s circus rock theme Tailor Made Destination isn’t far behind.

A handful of these pieces are massively orchestrated, like the Nightterrors’ macabre, Alan Parsons Project-ish Megafauna. Others, including Dorit Chrysler’s atmospherically circling Murderballad and Elizabeth Brown’s desolate March 21, are more spare. Twenty-nine tracks in, an electric guitar finally appears in Veronik’s Anomala, which is sort of House of the Rising Sun with a theremin. Song number 38, by the Keystone, is a strangely drifting duet for lapsteel and theremin. The most atmospheric track here, Gabriel and Rachel Guma’s Balloons Tied Up in the Sky, evokes whalesong. The weirdest one, Aileen Adler’s Piezoelectric Dreaming, is a mashup of Balkan reggae and spaghetti western themes.

Much of the rest of this material is classically-tinged: Japan Theremin Oldschool’s take of Ave Maria; Tears of Sirens’ Under the Milky Way (an original, not the Church classic), and Lydia Kavina’s In Green, a pretty piano-and-theremin ballad that wouldn’t be out of place in the ELO catalog if that band had a theremin. Maurizio Mansueti does a great job getting his contraption to emulate bel canto singing in the moody Blindfolded, while there’s a real aria in Robert Schillinger’s Bury Me, Bury Me Wind. The compilers who put this thing together deserve enormous credit for the consistently high quality, vast scope and imagination of most everything here.

Deliciously Shadowy Surf Tunes From the Pi Power Trio

The Pi Power Trio first took shape in the backyard at Long Island City Bar, where they entertained summertime crowds with a psychedelically drifting, rather darkly enveloping sound informed by guitarist Pat Irwin’s years of film work. They’re as close to a supergroup as exists in New York: bassist Daria Grace has been a prime mover in the city’s oldtimey scene since the late 90s, and drummer Sasha Dobson plays in another “power trio,” country soul band Puss N Boots with Norah Jones. This particular trio have a delightful, allusively dark surf rock album, The Walk, out recently and streaming at Bandcamp.

The title track, which opens the record, is not the woozy bass synth-driven new wave hit by the Cure but a distantly Lynchian, surfy reverb guitar-fueled go-go groove with cheery vocalese from the women in the band. The Dreamy Vocal (that’s the name of the tune) is a growling all-terrain-vehicle theme that harks back to Irwin’s days fronting 80s cult favorite instrumental band the Raybeats.

Grace hits a catchy surf riff right from the start of pH Factor, which comes across as vintage Ventures doing their cinematic thing, with plenty of Memphis in Irwin’s simmering guitar lines. The three close with a pummeling, somewhat haphazard, punky cover of the B-52s classic 52 Girls. The trio don’t have any gigs on the slate at the moment, but Grace is leading her luxuriantly boisterous oldtime uke swing band the Pre-War Ponies at 8 PM on March 12 at Barbes.