You could make a very strong case that Kotorino are the best New York band of the last ten years. Combining circus rock and latin noir, with frequent detours into gothic Americana, their sound grew more lavishly orchestrated as the group expanded. Their new album Sea Monster, streaming at Bandcamp, brings the band full circle to their earliest years in quietly uneasy parlor rock, a vehicle for frontman/guitarist Jeff Morris’ allusively grim narratives. Kotorino don’t have any shows coming up, but Charming Disaster – Morris and singer/uke player Ellia Bisker’s devilish murder ballad side project – are playing Pine Box Rock Shop this Friday night, Feb 16 at 11:30 PM.
“Like a broken calculator, they tried, and tried, but never got her number,” Morris and Bisker harmonize over an unexpectedly funky strut as the new album’s opening track, Hell Yeah, gets underway. The horn section kicks in, then there’s one of the misterioso interludes the band love so much. As usual, there are as many levels of meaning here, a sideways shout-out to an enterprising girl in the 21st century Manhattan gig economy:
Downtown to the tarpits
Where the hedge funds employ mystics
She said it’s been real in the abstract,
But I want to break out of this contract
Now That I’m Dead, a slowly swaying, crescendoing soul ballad, is next. The glockenspiel against Morris’ grittily clanging old Gibson hollowbody is a typical, neat Kotorino touch. The band shift between a muted, suspenseful pulse and bright, horn-spiced flair in the increasingly ominous travelogue Daddy’s on the Road: all those doppler effects are irresistibly fun.
Rags to Riches is classic Kotorino, a creepy circus waltz: without spoiling the plot, the theme is be careful what you wish for. Likewise, Breakdown has a darkly jaunty, brassy oldtimey swing: it’s part escape anthem, part dayjob hell story.
Too Bad (You Haven’t Eyes Like Us Owls) is the album’s most haunting track, a brooding noir mambo ablaze with brass, pouncing along on the slashes from Morris’ guitar, with a succession of surreal vocal cameos from the women in the band (who also comprise violinists Molly White and Estelle Bajou, tuba players Jeanie Schroder and Liz Prince, and singing saw player Caroline Ritson).
Patricia Santos’ mournful cello infuses the brooding, metaphorically charged waltz Planes Land:
The higher you go
The thinner the air
Head in the clouds
Spoils the view
Right Way Wrong has an emphatically jagged latin soul groove that rises to a moodily lush chorus, an allusively imagistic criminals-on-the-run tale with a cynically gruff Stefan Zeniuk bass sax solo. Fall Asleep But Don’t Let Me Go isn’t the only shipwreck tale Morris has written, but it’s the gloomiest, rising out of hazy ambience to a towering, 6/8 sway and then back, with an absolutely delicious contrapuntal vocal arrangement.
The title cut closes the album, Mike Brown;s chugging quasi-ska bassline giving way to a surreal, tropically psychedelic interlude with coy allusions to the Beatles and maybe the Boomtown Rats. Name another band alive who can do all this and a lot more in the span of just this many songs, You’ll see this here on the best albums of 2018 page at the end of the year.