New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: Leif Arntzen

Erica Smith Brings Her Poignant, Spectacular Voice and Eclectically Shattering Songs to the East Village

Erica Smith is one of New York’s most distinctive and often harrowing voices in folk noir and Americana. But even in this city, Smith’s ability to shift effortlessly from style to style is pretty spectacular. In addition to performing her own music, she’s currently a member of both the Richard Thompson cover group the Shootout Band – in which she puts her own stamp on Linda Thompson’s vocals – and also the explosive gospel-rock band Lizzie and the Sinners. Smith can belt a blues ballad or deliver a plaintive Appalachian narrative with anyone. And she’s also a versatile jazz stylist. Her latest album, a jazz recording with her band the 99 Cent Dreams, is One for My Baby, streaming at Spotify. She’s got a gig coming up on an excellent twinbill at Hifi Bar on May 10 at 7:30 PM; similarly lyrical and somewhat sunnier Americana singer Rebecca Turner follows at around 8:30 PM.

There’s a tragic backstory here: as it turned out, this was the final recording by the great New York drummer Dave Campbell. Perhaps best known for his serpentine, turn-on-a-dime work with psychedelic rock band Love Camp 7, Campbell was also a terrific swing jazz player with a flair for Brazilian grooves, which comes across vividly on the more upbeat tunes here. This is a collection of counterintuitive versions of standards recorded with rock band instrumentation – electric guitar, bass, drums and Leif Arntzen’s soulful muted trumpet on two numbers – along with an obscure treasure by one of this era’s great lit-rock songwriters. It opens with The Very Thought of You, where Smith distinguishes her version from the famous Billie Holliday take with her inscrutable delivery, growing more playfully optimistic as she goes along. Guitarist Dann Baker (also of Love Camp 7) mashes up Barney Kessel and Wes Montgomery as he follows Smith’s emotional trajectory.

Interestingly, there are a couple of songs commonly associated with Sinatra here. Smith does I Could Write a Book as ebullient, optimistic swing: the song feels like it’s about jump out of its shoes, but Smith holds it in check over a slightly ahead-of-the-beat bassline And she does the title track a tad faster than the Ol’ Blue Eyes original, echoing the bartender’s desire to call it a night as much as the wee-hours angst of the lyrics, Baker with her every step of the way through an alternately woozy and vividly brooding interpretation.

She does Rodgers and Hart’s It Never Entered My Mind as lingering, noir-tinged torch jazz, Baker’s gracefully stately chordal ballet in tandem with Campbell’s tersely slinky 6/8 groove. Smith’s careful, minutely jeweled, woundedly expressive vocals mine every ounce of ironic, biting subtext in the lyrics. Ain’t Misbehavin’ gets a hushed low-key swing treatment that builds to coyly nonchalant optimism, Arntzen’s trumpet following suit.

Campbell’s artfully acrobatic tumble opens Everything I’ve Got as an altered bossa before the band swings it by the tail, Smith leading the group on a long upward trajectory that far outpaces the Blossom Dearie original. The album’s most shattering track is a desolate, rainswept take of Cry Me a River, Baker shifting Kessel’s lingering lines further into the shadows over Campbell’s low-key, sepulchrally minimalistic brushwork. The band does the first recorded version of Livia Hoffman’s Valentine as a slow swing tune: “What are childhood crushes for? For crushing all your dreams forevermore,” Smith intones in a knowing, wounded mezzo-soprano. The album winds up with a wryly good-naturedly suspenseful, rainforest-swing solo take of Campbell’s drums on Everything I’ve Got: just wait til the hip-hop nation finds out that this exists. Throughout the record, Smith’s disarmingly direct, imaginative, emotionally vivid phrasing breathes new life into songs that other singers sometimes phone in, reason alone to give this a spin if classic jazz is your thing.

A Tight, Straight-Ahead, Funky New Album and a Rough Trade Show by Dancefloor Groovemeisters Emefe

Emefe distinguish themselves in many ways, one of them being that they are one of the few drummer-led bands around. Miles Arntzen – son of individualistically brilliant trumpeter/composer/singer Leif Arntzen – propels this Afrobeat-inspired dancefloor groove crew from behind the kit. Tenor saxophonist Jas Walton’s site describes the group’s mission as being “to fight the inner authorities that we put on ourselves” – as George Clinton said, free your ass and your mind will follow. Their forthcoming second album – which isn’t out yet, although there are a couple of tracks up at Bandcamp – updates mid-80s, funky Talking Heads for the 21st century. It’s a lot more terse, focused and less jam-oriented than their previous material, although that probably won’t have much to do with how much this group likes to cut loose onstage. They’re playing Rough Trade on April 2 at 11 PM; general admission is $12.

The new album kicks off with a flourish of a flute intro and then Jake Pinto’s surreal blend of watery synth tones joins the guitars as Doug Berns anchors it with his terse, biting, kinetic bass: the mantra is “don’t fall for it.” It’s part funk, part oldschool disco and it’s awfully catchy.

One of the guitarists – Deen Anbar and Michael Harlen – takes over in the tonebending department on Come Back to Me, which adds a little hip-hop touch to Talking Heads funk. Likewise, Same Thing takes a Burning Down the House drive and adds a little anthemic Celtic flavor. Sun Spat takes a circular indie classical horn riff – Walton in tandem with trumpter Michael Fatum, trombonist Raymond Mason and baritone saxophonist Zach Mayer – and then brings the band in to meet them in a blaze of intricately orchestrated harmonies that they very artfully shift in a funkier direction before an unexpected detour into dub.

Summer is as close to oldschool 70s funk as the band gets on the album, Walton’s sax sailing over dirty guitars and a tight dancefloor strut until Fatum blasts in and blows up the spot. And then the band follows with a long, anthemically explosive outro. After that, a jazzily determined vocal-and-percussion interlude leads into more beefed-up Talking Heads funk with Free to Scream: “You could scream any time of day/Be prepared for anything in your way” is its cautionary message. It’s the album’s most angst-driven and best song.

40 Watt, a dynamically shapeshifting instrumental with more pyrotechnic Fatum trumpet, builds to a joyous shout-out to the soul-funk classic The Horse as it winds out. The final cut, Dream Your Life Away brings to mind MTV-era Peter Gabriel. What use is this music? It’s like espresso in a can. It’ll revitalize you on the way home from work or school, and if you have enough space in your place for people to dance, throw this puppy on the next time you have a party and crank it.