New York Music Daily

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Tag: literate rock

An Artfully Orchestrated, Intensely Noir New Album and a Joe’s Pub Show from Esteemed Chamber Pop Band the Old Ceremony

Back in the early zeros, when songwriter Django Haskins was a familiar presence playing around the Lower East Side of New York, it’s not likely that he drew a lot of Leonard Cohen comparisons. But artists grow, and as the years went on Haskins’ work took on a welcome gravitas, culminating when he formed chamber pop band the Old Ceremony in 2004. For those who might not get the reference, the band name is a shout-out to Cohen’s cult classic album New Skin for the Old Ceremony. The group are currently on tour for their excellent new album, Sprinter – streaming at youtube – with a show at Joe’s Pub tonight, July 25 at 7:30 PM. Cover is $15, and remember, the venue doesn’t charge a drink minimum anymore.

The album opens with the title track, a scampering folk noir number, like a more lushly orchestrated Curtis Eller song, Mark Simonsen’s eerily looping vibraphone contrasting with Gabriele Pelli’s gusty violin. Haskins’ elegantly emphatic twelve-string acoustic guitar joins with Simonsen’s organ and a nebulously dense arrangement on the stomping Live It Down, bringing to mind Pinataland.

An enigmatically catchy waltz, Ghosts of Ferriday opens with swirly Pink Floyd organ and builds to an ominously clanging noir-psych interlude fueled by Haskins’ creepy tremolo guitar: it’s sort of the missing link between Jimmy Webb and Nick Waterhouse. ”Something for the headphones, something for the chatterbox, drown out the howling of the human rain,” Haskins relates with crushing, deadpan sarcasm in the pulsing 60s bossa-noir anthem Magic Hour, evoking another cult favorite New York band, the Snow.

The sinister Mission Bells goes back to a latin noir slink, Haskin’s sardonic wah guitar paired against Simonsen’s smoky organ, with subtle, Lynchian dub tinges and an unexpectedly feral guitar solo out.  Over Greenland opens with an airy minimalism, channeling the narrator’s dread during a red-eye flight from who knows what – and then the scene shifts to a sarcastic, faux-Springsteen tableau. Fall Guy starts out with a brooding boleroesque groove and picks up with an anthemic stomp – the chute jumper at the center of the story sounds like notorious hijacker D.B. Cooper.

The moody, fingerpicked folk-rock blue-collar anomie anthem Hard Times wouldn’t be out of place on a recent Matt Keating album. Dan Hall’s rumbling drums and Shane Hartman’s dancing bass propel Efige, a snarling southwestern gothic narrative with murderously Balkan-tinged guitar. The final cut is Go Dark, packed with tricky metrics, snarky faux cinematics and metaphorically-charged suspense in the same vein as Ward White‘s most recent material. There’s just as much going on in the other songs as well, subtext and symbolism and allusions: if there’s any album this year that requires repeated listening, this is it. Notwithstanding contributions from southern indie royalty – Mike Mills of REM and the Baseball Project, and Chris Stamey from the DB’s – it’s Haskins’ tour de force. He’s never written more strongly or for matter played guitar with as much spacious, suspenseful intensity as he dives into here. It’s always good to see an artist at the top of their game fifteen years or so after they started, isn’t it?

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A Rare Show and a Rare Gem of an Album by Shanghai Love Motel

Even in an era when obscurity has become a badge of honor, New York band Shanghai Love Motel are almost apocryphal. They don’t play a lot of gigs, so when they do, it’s a pretty major event. They basically play two styles of music, both of them looking back to the dark guitar-fueled underside of the 80s: stomping, growling paisley underground psychedelic rock, as well as more artsy, low-key, sometimes jazz-tinged new wave guitar pop. What distinguishes them more than their catchy hooks and biting guitars is their savage, literate lyrics: bands who can be this loud seldom have words as good as the music. Their lone album so far, Thrum, is streaming online – and to further intrigue you, their lyrics are all up online as well. They’re playing a rare NYC date at the Parkside on July 10 at 10, where they’ll be rejoined by their longtime guitarist Adam Russell ; cover is $5.

The band’s two main songwriters, guitarist Bryan Brown and bassist Bill Millard, each have their signature styles. Brown goes more for the hypnotically growling, understatedly menacing post-Velvets/Neil Young sway that the Dream Syndicate immortalized. Millard’s songs tend to be somewhat more low-key but no less sinister. The album’s opening track, by Brown, is King of Memory, a dead ringer for an early Steve Wynn number, its narrator a metaphorical monarch who has “lost more than you have purported to know” circling the wagons over a classic early 80s groove. Millard’s Snapshots from the Sinister Cathedral blends elegant jazz-tinged phrasing from Brown and keyboardist David Smith:

Meet me at four in the morning
At the Cathedral of John the Mundane
Assuming old Johnny’s in shape to get out of the rain
We’d better bring plenty of coffee
And pictures of places we like
And jokes we can aim at whoever is hogging the mic

Brown’s Too Good Too Soon sets a surrealistically smart-ass kiss-off lyric to Stratocaster-stung Tex-Mex soul: it’s the kind of song that John Sharples would cover. Another Brown tune, Almost Gone stomps uneasily between major and minor keys, its angst-fueled theme bringing to mind Matt Keating in hard-rocking mode, lit up by a couple of jaggedly sunsplashed guitar solos. As period-perfect paisley underground rock goes, it doesn’t get any better than this.

Millard’s almost imperceptibly crescendoing I Was the Dog opens with a verse that Elvis Costello would be proud to call his own and just gets more savage from there:

With all due respect, I don’t believe respect is due
They know now what the world spins ’round.
Somebody figured out that it ain’t you
The only truth that you know is that you’ll never know the truth
Another stoner paradox for terminally gullible youth…

Millard and Brown co-wrote Burning Bush, an enigmatic, ominous glimpse of a metaphorically-charged postapocalyptic landscape spiced by spiky mandolin and watery chorus-box guitar: is this an obit for the evil of the Bush/Cheney years, maybe?

Drummer Mark Hennessy pushes Millard’s Flip in Style with a vintage 60s Stones gorove, toward Replacements territory. Brown’s Strong Silent Type is the most low-key, nocturnal track here. The album’s most searing, torrentially lyrical number is The Universal Skeptical Anthem, a tour de force rant by Millard:

Spare me the line about machines for going back in time
And all the crying over moral turpentine
I get a whiff about a couple of state lines away;
That’s enough for maybe 90 billion days
Spare me the flag-wagging huckleberry knuckleheads
That can’t tell who’s the monster and who’s Frankenstein…

After the unhinged octaves of a guitar solo, the band segues into Brown’s Ruined Man, a sardonically syncopated look at world where “They resell mystery in burial mounds, with lots marked Resigned or Content.” The album comes full circle with How’s Dr. Ving, by Millard, a mashup of Elvis Costello and the Dream Syndicate. If this is the only album the band ever does, they’ve got themselves a cult classic – but we can always hope for more. See what they have in store for the future at the Parkside.

Dawn Oberg’s New Album: Through the Bottom of a Glass, Darkly

Pianist/songwriter Dawn Oberg seems to have an enthusiastic cult following. She plays respectably small and midsize venues across the country and is well-liked by NPR. The obvious comparison is Aimee Mann, but where Mann looks back to 60s folk-rock and psychedelia, Oberg is more informed by jazz, gospel and soul music. She’s got a New York show at 9 PM on 4/20 – where, you ask? City Winery? The big room at the Rockwood? The Blue Note, or Barbes? Nope. Oberg is playing Bar East, the former Hogs & Heifers space on the Upper East better known as Bare Ast, which pretty much says it all about the kind of disarray facing musicians passing through town.

Although alcohol makes frequent appearances in Oberg’s urbane, wryly literate songs – her new album is titled Rye – disarray is not a factor. She’s a hell of a piano player with a fondness for gospel voicings and sings in a quirky, natter-of-fact contralto, sort of Amy Allison in slo-mo. Oberg keeps the humor deadpan and lets her images speak for themselves. Perfect illustration: the nonchalantly shuffling opening track, Girl Who Sleeps with Books. Oberg slowly pans an apartment that’s perfectly comfortable on one hand, and yet there’s something missing. The brilliance of this song is that this girl, with her notebook and clutter and caffeine addiction, who would rather spend an evening with something more interactive than a novel, is us. Seriously: who doesn’t have a book hiding somewhere in the covers?

The title track juxtaposes jaunty, blues-infused piano rock with a brooding, whiskey-fueled reminscence of a long-gone affair spent “hiking in the Sierras, getting high and watching South Park.” With its breathless torrents of lyrics, Gentleman and a Scholar is 21st century Cole Porter, a portrait of someone who “knows the works of Fats Waller and can play you recordings of them…he taught me how to drive a stick without acting like a prick and in general doesn’t tick me off.” The subtext is killing: Amy Rigby would do this one halfspeed with guitars and pedal steel.

Reconstruction evokes Shine On Brightly era Procol Harum, Roger Rocha adding shifting layers of guitar, a neat touch considering the song’s architectural theme. Parallel Plane revisits the swinging shuffle of the opening track: “The masterpiece I ruined is always on display…like a monster with a toy she’d break rather than hold,” Oberg laments. Cracks, an understatedly haunting, elegaic ballad worthy of Phil Ochs, sets Oberg’s clipped, wounded articulation over Rocha’s distantly symphonic guitar orchestration:

Black orange and red, colors of your bed
The canvas conveys how well you hide the dread
From Larkspur to the Tenderloin
A journey that spans a realm of the coin 
Distant as Marrakesh
Promixity of spirit and flesh
With angles so sharp and unkind
As to sever all you hold as true
You keep close to your heart the cracks killing you

Contortions works a sideshow metaphor for all it’s worth, an exasperated message to someone jumping through hoops for someone when she should really be kicking his ass instead. As a portrait of bitterness and alienation, Disguise makes a more angst-ridden companion to Blow This Nightclub’s Sensitive Skin. To That Extent once again evokes Procol Harum, Erik Ian Walker’s organ mingling with Oberg’s piano for a richly textural feast.

“The breakers shining big and beautiful, will laugh unthinkingly and crush your skull,” Oberg intones matter-of-factly on End of the Continent, its earthquake metaphors gathering intensity in anticipation of the Big One. It’s the album’s catchiest song and a rare moment where Oberg cuts loose at the piano: she always leaves you wanting more. It ends with Civic High, a high-spirited tribute to Oberg’s native San Francisco, her “favorite hedonistic playground.” The only other lyrical rock albums from this year that compare with this are Ward White’s surreal, sinister Bob, and LJ Murphy’s new one, which is in the can but not released yet.

Another Great Album by the Larch

For more than a decade, the Larch have been making first-class British rock in Brooklyn. Frontman/guitarist Ian Roure’s status as an expat has a lot to do with that. Like Squeeze, or Elvis Costello – an artist he’s often compared to – Roure writes sardonically about dysfunctional office scenarios, schizos with cellphones and post-9/11 American fascism to rival any scheme Margaret Thatcher ever devised. After a flirtation with sci-fi rock on 2009’s Gravity Rocks, Roure’s worldview has become bleaker, his cynicism deeper. His songwriting hit a high point with Larix Americana, a masterpiece of lyrical New York underground rock, released just over a couple of years ago. Where that album took a richly successful plunge into psychedelic rock, the band’s new album Days to the West blends new wave and psychedelia, Roure’s withering lyricism as acerbic as ever. If Larix Americana was their Argybargy, you could call this their West Side Story, a richly eclectic and powerful followup to a classic.

The new wave pulse of Tons of Time sets the tone: “We don’t know what we’re going for, but it’s not here,” Roure sings with a gentle insistence: it’s a knowing anthem for any would-be rockers “watching the game you’re not sure you can win…rock criticism with your pickle and cheese, living the life but you’re feeling the squeeze.” But there’s hope to ” meet the word outside this penny market town.” Roure takes a long, rippling, lickety-split wah guitar solo out.

Monkey Happy Hour makes a slightly less caustic companion piece to LJ Murphy’s Happy Hour, a scenario that equates fratboy grotesquerie with post-office overindulgence, set to a terse riff that hits the chorus hard with a nice biting change. Already Lost Tomorrow is just as sardonic: like much of the Larch’s catalog, it could be just a bitter, brooding tale of a guy grabbing for all he can, or it could be a metaphor for disingenuous yuppie consumption, Liza Roure’s trebly organ mingling with a growling web of guitar and Ross Bonadonna’s melodic spiral-staircase bassline. Similarly, the title track, a lushly orchestrated, distantly Scottish-flavored 6/8 ballad, could simply be a reminiscence of watching a comet, or a metaphor for something far greater.

Honey Bee works a catchy, Kinks-influenced verse, an upbeat look at “balancing the nectar and the sting.” With its hypnotic space-rock intro, outro and sizzling lead guitar, Midweek Nebula looks at a memorably twisted bunch of office weirdos from the other end of the telescope, a milieu that gets revisited even more caustically with Second Face, a warmly Costelloish new wave pop tune that grimly ponders the loss of an office alliance. And The Bishop’s Chair, with its synthesized bells and tongue-in-cheek backing vocals, pokes fun at how “before you know, those old beliefs are stretched beyond repair.” This particular bishop may think all eyes are on him, but they’re not. The album ends with a darkly ornate, keyboard-driven, late 60s style psychedelic Britfolk anthem, and a return to the more 80s-flavored psych-pop that has been the band’s stock in trade throughout their career. Not a single miss on this album: another winner from a group that deserves to be much bettter known than they are.

Happy Labor Day Weekend

Today’s free download is from Ray Brown. Not the jazz hall of famer – you know, the guy who married Ella Fitzgerald – but from a veteran Connecticut songwriter who says that lo-fi New York torch song duo Rayvon Browne took their name from him.

The song is Saddest Man in the World, the best track on his album Pimpin’ Ain’t Easy. It’s got a Jimmy Webb chamber-pop feel: it would have made a great B-side to Glenn Campbell’s Galveston. If there’s any question in your mind as to whether the phrase “theatre of douchebaggery” can be used poetically or not, download this song – or, hell, the whole record – and find out for yourself.

Judging Mike Rimbaud’s Covers Album

After seven albums of original material – and his excellent, most recent release, Coney Island Wave (chronicled here yesterday), literate rocker Mike Rimbaud decided to do an album of covers. Which can be tricky. In order to cover a song that’s worth covering to begin with, you either have to do it better than the original – no easy task – or completely reinvent it. Which is exactly what Rimbaud did with Can’t Judge a Song By Its Cover. To call this record ambitious is something of an understatement: tackling mostly well-known, iconic songs, Rimbaud makes it seem easy as he nails them, one by one. If you’re willing to buy the argument that there’s such thing as a classic album of covers, this is it.

It gets off to a false start. The opening track, Almost Hear You Sigh, has a tired, 70s blues-pop feel. Who might have been responsible for it the first time around? Dire Straits, maybe? As it turns out, this is a Rolling Stones song, from long after that band ceased to be relevant. Then the fun begins with an electric bluegrass version of Springsteen’s Atlantic City – Rimbaud’s casual, practically blithe delivery only underscores the grim fatalism in the hitman’s tale. The album’s centerpiece is Idiot Wind, which has arguably the greatest rock lyric ever written, as much of a requiem for the optimism of the 60s as for Dylan’s marriage. Rimbaud reinvents it by turning it into straight-up electric rock and playing it almost doublespeed (the original clocks in at around nine minutes, this one at five). Once again, the nuance in Rimbaud’s vocals, from icy rage to a contemptuous rasp, is intuitive, and packs a wallop: it’s not quite as intense as the venomous Mary Lee’s Corvette version, but it’s pretty close, and the band (Chris Fletcher on bass and Kevin Tooley on drums along with Rimbaud’s guitars and keys) keeps up with him.

The rest of the album is more carefree. Marley’s Is This Love gets new life via a brisk new wave/powerpop arrangement in the same vein as Blondie’s One Way or Another, with a killer Link Wray-flavored surf rock solo. Mike’s Wave is the Tom Jobim bossa nova hit done with just enough bite to elevate it above lounge music, while the Beatles’ No Reply gets a Stonesy, noir garage rock groove. The original version of Phil Ochs’ Ringing of Revolution has brilliant lyrics but a pretty generic early 60s folkie melody: Rimbaud rescues it by plugging it in and giving it a bluesy menace fueled by ominous chromatic harp, raising the intensity, the fat cats squirming in their easy chairs as the murderous mob grows closer and closer. Which makes the payoff at the end all the more satisfying, where the citizens’ “memories [are] dimmed of the decades of execution.” It’s timeless: Ochs could have been referring to the Soviet Union under Stalin, or Texas under Bush. The last song on the album is titled Take 5000: it’s an update on the Dave Brubeck Quartet’s classic Take 5, the bestselling jazz single of all time. Rimbaud makes tango nuevo out of it, blending electric piano and wah guitar for a fun, eerie ride capped off with another excellent surf guitar solo. Along with Rimbaud’s most recent album of originals, this deserves to be counted as one of the best rock records of recent months.

Rimbaud’s also featured on the upcoming Occupy This Album benefit record for the Occupy movement along with socially aware artists from Jackson Browne, to Immortal Technique, to New York art-rockers My Pet Dragon and roots reggae star Taj Weekes & Adowa.

And there’s more: Rimbaud also has a pretty hilarious new single out, a cover of the Beatles’ Baby You’re a Rich Man done with a tongue-in-cheek, reverb-drenched Exile on Main Street glimmer.

Mike Rimbaud’s Coney Island Wave Is a Riptide

Any conversation about great lyrical songwriters since the punk era needs to include Elvis Costello and Graham Parker…and Mike Rimbaud. Rimbaud is younger than they are; stylistically, he’s closer to Parker, both in terms of surreal, aphoristic, dark lyrics and excellent guitarslinging. In fact, Rimbaud’s the best guitarist of all three, equally interesting whether he’s working an oldschool soul vamp, playing twangy noir surf licks, angry punk rock or glimmering, nocturnal Stonesy lines. His most recent album of originals, Coney Island Wave is one of the great New York rock records. It’s both a celebration of this city as well as an often savagely spot-on look at the state of the world, 2012, set to catchy, usually upbeat tunes that run the gamut from vintage new wave, to creepy garage rock, to oldschool soul. It’s the rare album where the melodies are as good as the lyrics, which are just plain kick-ass pretty much all the way through, Rimbaud handling all the guitars, keys and occasional harmonica and backed by a no-nonsense rhythm section of Chris Fletcher on bass, Andrea Pennisi on percussion and Kevin Tooley on drums.

The first track is Burning the Night Out Early, set in a vivid late night Coney Island of the mind where “it’s getting early”- that kind of night. If you’ve experienced one of those there, this will resonate mightily. Rimbaud follows  it with Dance with a Mermaid, a noir garage rock song packed with loaded metaphors, the mermaid dancing on the Titanic since the ocean’s full of oil and global warming has brought the mix to a boil, so to speak.

With its clever Like a Rolling Stone allusions, Don’t You Love This City keeps the sarcasm at boiling point. The next track, Everybody Needs a Daddy sounds suspiciously sarcastic as well, especially with the Simpsons and Darth Vader references – could it be a jab at the Bloomberg nanny-state patriarchy?

Got to Sell Yourself is just plain great, an anthem for anyone who’d like to take the world’s oldest profession to the next level: “You’re a failure when nobody’s buying, you’re something else when you’re sold out; you’re a loser ’cause you only own yourself,” Rimbaud snarls over the song’s casually biting, insistent hook. Here Comes the Subway Sun could be a tribute to the joys of tripping on the train; Mamma Say Something Nice follows in a brooding blue-eyed soul vein, like something Parker might have done in the late 70s.

The album really heats up at this point. Puppet Man, with its soul organ groove, is packed with more politically-charged sarcasm. “Like Pinocchio, go to Tokyo,” is one recurrent motif: a Fukushima reference, maybe? The album’s funniest, and probably most timely track is Put Your Facebook on the Shelf:

Don’t let it get in your head
Slavery’s not dead…
Your password’s not a secret
Eyes wander on the page
Your tongue hangs out like a hungry dog
How many friends can you count on?

Rimbaud rasps over a catchy groove that’s part Elvis C., part Bob Marley.

Saving to Go Bankrupt – an anthem for the Occupy movement, with some very insightful and useful background from Rimbaud here – offers both a succinct condemnation of the one percenters’ bankrupt system as well as hope for the future: “Wake up from your American dream!” Rimbaud follows that one with Tears for the Rich and Famous, a searing, guitar-fueled condemnation of celebrity shallowness capped by a sweet, vengefully swinging guitar solo. The last track, Unicorn, is the most retro 80s of all the songs here – with its goth tinges and synthesizer, it sounds like an outtake from a previous session that might have been tacked on here to end the album on a more upbeat note. Rimbaud also has a killer new album just out, Can’t Judge a Song by Its Cover, which imaginatively reinvents an impressively diverse mix of classics and standards by Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, Dave Brubeck, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Marley, Tom Jobim, the Beatles and others. That’s up next here. Rimbaud is also featured on the upcoming Occupy This Album anthology, a benefit record for the Occupy Movement featuring some obvious suspects along with several refreshingly not-so-obvious ones including Immortal Technique,Willie Nelson and Toots & the Maytals plus New York talents My Pet Dragon, Taj Weekes & Adowa and Stephan Said.