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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 Carnivalesque Masterpiece from Kotorino

The cover photo on Kotorino‘s new album Better Than This shows an empty antique couch beneath a bright, mostly cloudless afternoon sky. It’s a considerably sunnier picture than the ones frontman/guitarist Jeff Morris’ songs paint, although the implied solitude is telling. Kotorino began life back in the mid-zeros as a creepy chamber-pop ensemble with something of a steampunk edge, which Morris has pretty much ditched for an even creepier, considerably more muscular circus rock ambience. He is as adept at latin music as he is at noir cabaret, with both styles represented all over the place here. If it’s still possible for there to be such a thing as a “breakthrough album,” this is Kotorino’s – the gypsy rock crowd, the oldtimey swing crowd, the noir contingent and fans of nuevo tango all get plenty to enjoy here. The whole thing is streaming at their Bandcamp page.

The opening track, What Is This Thing is a tango, Morris joining with his Charming Disaster femme fatale foil Ellia Bisker and the rest of the women in the band (tuba player Liz Prince, violinist Estelle Bajou and singer Molly White) for some pretty otherworldly vocal harmonies:

She put him on like a pair of fuzzy slippers
He let her down like a broken elevator…
They were packing it up and saving it for later
She was sleeping in the tub til they got some sunny weather
He was smoking again just to take a little breather

They wrap it up with a wry Dell Shannon quote and a big brassy outro.

North Star State is Morris at his enigmatic best: who are the guy and girl in this oldtimey-flavored duet looking for, and is that person alive or dead? The music is equally clever: endless volleys of counterpoint between the horns, bass and tuba and eventually a big carnivalesque brass-band coda. Going Out Tonight, a picturesque tale of a guy hellbent on springing his girlfriend from a mental ward somewhere in the Midwest, has a devious minor-key pulse: “Come with me for some rebellious exercise,”  Morris grins. He and Bisker duet on the album’s best and most menacing track, Murderer, a lurid crime-jazz number that illustrates why the perfect crime requires a lone perpetrator.

Never Had a Chance, a cha-cha in 7/4 time, is the liveliest and most surreal track here, packed with droll touches like breaks for fingersnaps and bass, a brief but momentous bass sax solo from Gato Loco‘s Stefan Zeniuk and a blazing Jesse Selengut trumpet solo out over an oompah groove.  Morris and Bisker get deceptively chaerming and blithe on the East River Ferry Waltz, before Morris lays on the cynicism – which turns out to have lethal implications, if you pay attention. They follow that with the morose chamber-pop tune Broken Carousel, another waltz, buildling to an unexpectedly savage Morris guitar solo and a big, majestically orchestrated crescendo.

The album’s title track is a nebulous, coldly ambiguous solo piano ballad. They wrap it up with Into the Sky, the album’s most phantasmagorical, epically sweeping song, pulling out all the stops for a cruelly cynical faux-gospel bridge, equally sarcastic girl-group harmonies and a typically blazing horn arrangement. As darkly evocative art-rock goes in 2013, it doesn’t get any better than this: watch for it on the “best albums of the year page” here in about a month.

Kotorino Turns Joe’s Pub Into a Dark Carnival

Right now Brooklyn’s Kotorino are as exciting as any other creepy, carnivalesque band in the world. Having seen Mucca Pazza, Rosin Coven, Rasputina and several others in that vein over the past few months, Kotorino are as lush and menacing as any of them – and they just keep growing. Earlier this evening at Joe’s Pub there were eight other musicians alongside frontman/guitarist Jeff Morris, whose brooding, rakish persona and disquietingly surreal narratives were fleshed out with majestic four-part harmonies, ominous noir vamps and tensely mysterious interludes punctuated by unexpected leaps and dives from throughout the band. This time out, immediately to Morris’ right on ukulele and percussion was Elia Bisker, who plays his dangerously torchy foil in the considerably quieter but equally menacing duo Charming Disaster. Among the rest of the players in the three-piece string section, horns, rhythm section and singing saw were violinist Molly White, bassist Mike Brown, drummer Jerome Morris (Jeff’s jazzy brother), trumpeter Jesse Selengut and low-register reedman Stefan Zeniuk (of psycho mambo band Gato Loco).

Morris’ songs range from noir cabaret to chamber pop and circus rock, with frequent latin and Romany influences. As the band has gotten bigger, the sound has grown louder. They opened the show with a noir mambo and ended with a tango about suicide. In between, they varied their dynamics, throughly rich arrangements with spine-tingling harmonies from the women and one trick ending after another. They began the surreal, probably symbolically loaded hot-air balloon epic Oh My God with a balmy but foreboding lushness, rising to an understated angst fueled by a simmering salsa groove. The next song was a dark cabaret narrative told from the point of view of a guy imagining all the fun he’s going to have after he springs his girlfriend out of the loony bin

A similarly shadowy, worrisome waltz was written for a Fringe Festival show, Morris explained – which says a lot about where these songs come from. This one ostensibly told the story of a cop, “a man in a long black car.” The one before that reminded of fellow Brooklyn art-rockers the Snow with its pulsing minor-key, chromatically bristling tune and its story about a girl who made some kind of promise before falling asleep – or something like sleep – on the kitchen floor. Bisker duetted with Morris on a torchy, jaunty but pensive oldtime swing-tinged song lit up by more of those gorgeous vocal harmonies and a similarly torchy Selengut solo. Then Morris switched to the piano for a brooding number that bookended a graceful art-rock anthem with a nebulously morose, lingering intro and outro.

“What is this mess that we call love?” the women sang on another jaunty swing number, like the Moonlighters on steroids – it was the most carnivalesque number of the night. The night’s most lavish, epic number was Williamsburg Suits, which could be a subtle, musically retro attack on fashion trends or gentrification, or both. Morris and Bisker played it four-handed on piano, Zeniuk’s bass sax and the trumpet trading incisive riffage, down to a long, shimmery, misterioso interlude and finally out with a distantly clanging, tone-bending menace (how many times has the word “menace” appeared here? If nothing else, that explains this band). If you wish you’d caught this concert, Kotorino are playing the album release show for their highly anticipated new one on Sept 27 at around 9:30 at the Cameo Gallery with Gato Loco – who can be just as dark and entertaining – opening at around 8:30.

Kotorino Stuns the Crowd at Joe’s Pub

At any given time, there are always about two dozen New York rock bands who could be the best in town, and Kotorino are definitely among the current crop. Friday night at Joe’s Pub, Kotorino reminded that out of all those bands, they’re by far the most original and probably the most interesting. They didn’t do their trademark switching off on instruments – the drummer emerging from behind the kit to take a turn on harmonium, for example – leaving only frontman Jeff Morris to alternate between guitar and piano. Debonair and intense in front of the band, he scooched from side to side as he sang with an unaffected but apprehensive delivery that frequently threatened to reach to the level of a scream but never quite went there. That pervasive angst matched to an equally vivid joie de vivre perfectly capsulizes the appeal of this band, part gypsy rock, part noir cabaret, part chamber pop. This was the eight-piece version of the group, with Morris backed by two violins, trumpet, multi-reeds (baritone and tenor sax plus bass clarinet), tuba and bass for extra slinky low-register fatness, and drums.

The most amazing moment of the night, and there were plenty of those, was when the two women in the band put down their violins and joined Morris at the piano, singing eerily swooping, microtonal close harmonies that added a surreal gypsy-tinged menace to the song’s bittersweet psychedelics. “It won’t get better than this,” Morris intoned, making it clear that he meant that in every possible sense. At the end, Jesse Selengut – who was a one-man crescendo army on trumpet, all night long – exchanged bars with Stefan Zeniuk’s bass clarinet until the whole band took the song up and out with an emphatic, ominous stomp. The band opened with what was essentially a dark garage rock number in 7/8 time that wouldn’t have been out of place in the Botanica catalog: “I never had a chance to work it out, never had a chance,” Morris lamented. They followed that Oh My God, a lush steampunk anthem about sailing away in a balloon from their most recent album Broken Land, equal parts exhilaration and dread as the band built to a brief, frantic doublespeed interlude and then reverted gracefully to a distantly majestic sway.

With the harmonies between Morris and violinist Molly White – whose torchy allure made a potent contrast with his pensive, contemplative style – many of the songs evoked fellow Brooklyn art-rockers the Snow. False endings and sudden tempo changes abounded. A couple of the songs kicked off with a reggae beat and then built warily and methodically from there; the creepiest one of the night, at least musically, was a piano waltz with abrasive muted trumpet, a suspensefully atonal, swirlingly atmospheric interlude where Selengut got the chance to unleash his inner elephant and then a big, roaring outro.

It took nerve to close the set with a suicide song, Dangle Tango, but that’s what they did, lighting it up with uneasy clarinet trills and chillingly gleeful la-la harmonies as it built to a towering, manic-depressive sway that finally exploded at the end. As the audience did, seconds afterward, obviously stunned by this band’s unpredictable power. They screamed for an encore and got a rousing but uneasy singalong; they wanted another, but by now it was almost one in the morning and the club staff all looked ready for bed.

Kotorino’s Broken Land – One of This Past Year’s Best Albums

Brooklyn band Kotorino play darkly elegant, trippy, gypsy-flavored “parlor rock” with carnivalesque touches. It’s astonishing that their most recent album Broken Land hasn’t gotten more press than it has: there’s a huge audience out there who will love this record (this blog didn’t yet exist when it came out about a year ago). There are other bands who work the same territory – Oregon gypsy band Fishtank Ensemble, in their quieter moments, or fellow Brooklyn chamber-rock band the Snow – but Kotorino’s sound is unique. Often their lead instrument is Stefan Zeniuk’s clarinet or bass clarinet, other times it’s a singing saw. Frontman Jeff Morris’ guitar gives some of the songs a slinky tango vibe; then he’ll play with a slide, adding a rustic, nocturnal, bluesy edge, or switch to pump organ. Onstage, the band members all switch and play each others’ instruments, adding a level of mystery here as to who’s playing what – drummer Jerome Morris on guitar? Could be. Harmony singer Amy Morris and violinist Molly White add to the lush, low-key ambience, joining voices conspiratorially over accordionist Nicki Pfoutz’s plaintive chords.

The album kicks off with a tango vibe enhanced by White’s stark violin accents and a nicely layered horn arrangement. The second track, Little Boat goes for an understated unease which bobs to the surface again and again throughout the album. It’s a metaphorically-loaded escape anthem: “Sitting there with my myserious frown, Mona Lisa turned upside down,” explains Jeff Morris as his craft loses sight of shore, a torchy chromatic harp solo raising the apprehension another notch. Under the Moon sounds like the Snow playing dub reggae; the next track, Hawaii, drenched in dreamy steel guitars, could be El Radio Fantastique covering the Moonlighters. It’s a shipwreck survivor’s tale, with what seems to be an unexpectedly happy ending.

The best song on the album is Sky’s on Fire, an ominous banjo tune with a casually chilling violin solo that underscores its narrator’s madness: “From a butterfly to a hurricane, there’s a sky in my eye, it’s on fire,” Jeff Morris intones quietly. They go back to reggae – and a surreal, woozy carousel interlude – with Paris Underground, then Dangle Tango builds a series of suspenseful crescendos around a would-be suicide’s tale:

Angels are circling my head
Flying sweetly round and round
I feel like old King Kong
As I try to knock them down

The slow, singing saw sway of Oh My God – a metaphorical tale of flying off in a balloon – is irresistibly romantic. They close the album with the title track, a bluesy 6/8 steampunk anthem for a bucolic Brooklyn of the mind in some alternate future. Kotorino choose their gigs wisely: watch this space for upcoming live dates.