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Greg Lewis Brings His Harrowing, Haunting, Elegaic New Protest Jazz Suite to Bed-Stuy

Greg Lewis is one of the world’s great jazz organists, best known as a radical reinterpreter of Thelonious Monk. But Lewis hardly limits himself to reinventing the classics. His latest album The Breathe Suite – streaming at Spotify – is just as radical, and arguably the most relevant jazz album released in the past several months. Lewis dedicates five of its six relentlessly dark, troubled movements to black Americans murdered by police. There’s never been an organ jazz album like this before: like Monk, Lewis focuses on purposeful, catchy melodies, heavy with irony and often unvarnished horror. If this isn’t the best album of 2017 – which it might well be – it’s by far the darkest. Lewis and his Organ Monk trio are making a rare, intimate Bed-Stuy appearance on August 26 at 8:30 PM at Bar Lunatico.

A long, astringently atmospheric intro with acidic, sustained Marc Ribot guitar gives way to a stark fanfare, much like something out of the recent Amir ElSaffar catalog, as the suite’s epic, nineteen-minute first movement, Chronicles of Michael Brown, gets underway. Lewis’ ominous, sustained chromatics introduce a slinky, moody nocturne with a cinematic sweep on par with Quincy Jones’ mid-60s film music, Reggie Woods’ bright tenor sax and Riley Mullins’ trumpet contrasting with a haunting undercurrent that drummer Nasheet Waits eventually swings briskly.  From there Lewis and Ribot edge it into  simmering soul, then Waits leads the drive upward to a harrowing machete crescendo. Lewis’ solo as the simmer returns is part blues, part carnivalesque menace. When the fanfare returns, jaggedly desperate guitar and drums circle around, Lewis diabolically channeling Louis Vierne far more than Monk.

The second, enigmatically shuffling second movement memorializes Trayvon Martin, Lewis alternating between Pictures At an Exhibition menace and a chugging drive as guitarist Ron Jackson’s flitting solo dances in the shadows. The third, Aiyana Jones’ Song eulogizes the seven-year-old Detroit girl gunned down in a 2010 police raid. It’s here that the Monk influence really comes through, in the tersely stepping central theme and Lewis’ creepy, carnivalesque chords as the piece sways along. The altered martial beats of drummer Jeremy “Bean” Clemons’ solo lead the band upward; it ends suddenly, unresolved, just like the murder – two attempts to bring killer Joseph Weekley to justice ended in mistrials.

The murder of Eric Garner- throttled to death by policeman Daniel Pantaleo in front of the Staten Island luxury condo building where he’d been stationed to drive away black people – is commemorated in the fourth movement. Awash in portentous atmospherics, this macabre tone poem veers in and out of focus, the horns reprising the suite’s somber fanfare, Jackson’s guitar circling like a vulture overhead, then struggling and shrieking as the organ and drums finally rise.

The fifth movement, Osiris Ausar and the Race Soldiers opens with a conversation between pensive organ and spiraling drums, then the band hits a brisk shuffle groove, horns and guitar taking turns building bubbling contrast to Lewis’ angst-fueled chordlets underneath. The final movement revisits the Ferguson murder of Michael Brown with an endless series of frantically stairstepping riffs, Lewis finally taking a grimly allusive solo, balmy soul displaced by fear. Fans of good-time toe-tapping organ jazz are in for a surprise and a shock here; this album will also resonate with fans of politically fearless composers and songwriters like Shostakovich and Nina Simone.

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Stunningly Eclectic Singer Sofia Rei Radically Reinvents Violeta Parra Classics

Conventional wisdom is that if you cover a song, you either want to do it better than the original, or make something completely different out of it. The latter usually makes more sense, considering that if a song is worth covering at all, the original is probably hard to beat. Merle Haggard as shambling free jazz; Gil Scott-Heron as hard bop; Pink Floyd as dub reggae – all of those unlikely reinterpretations ended up validating the outside-the-box creativity that went into them. On the brand-new album El Gavilan (The Hawk), streaming at Bandcamp, pan-latin singer Sofia Rei – who’s never met a style she was afraid to tackle – puts a brave new spin on the songs of Chilean icon Violeta Parra. The Argentine-born songstress is currently on tour; her next New York concert is this coming June 2 at 8 PM at the Neighborhood Church, 269 Bleecker St. at Morton St. in a duo with the incomparable, more atmospheric Sara Serpa, her bandmate in John Zorn’s Mycale a-cappella project. The show is free.

On one hand, artists from across the Americas have covered Parra. On the other, it takes a lot of nerve to reinvent her songs as radically as Rei does. The album’s opening number, Casamiento de Negros begins as a bouncy multitracked a-cappella number, like Laurie Anderson at her most light-footed; guitarist Marc Ribot tosses off a tantalizingly brief, Hawaiian-tinged slide guitar solo. It’s a stark contrast with Parra’s allusive narrative of a lynching. 

Parra’s stark peasant’s lament Arriba Quemando El Sol is a march, Ribot opening with an ominous clang, then echoing and eventually scorching the underbrush beneath Rei’s resolute, emphatic delivery. It’s akin to Pink Floyd covering Parra, but with more unhinged guitars and more expressive vocals. She does Una Copla Me Ha Cantado as a starlit lullaby, killing softly with the song over Ribot’s spare deep-space accents.

Her wryly looped birdsong effects open a pulsing take of Maldigo Del Alto Cielo that rises to swoopy heights, spiced with wisps of backward masking, a curse in high-flying disguise. By contrast, the muted, bruised pairing of Rei’s vocals with Ribot’s spare chords gives La Lavandera the feel of a Marianne Dissard/Sergio Mendoza collaboration as it reaches toward a simmering ranchera-rock sway.

Rei makes a return to atmospheric art-rock with the lament Corazón Maldito, Ribot rising from shivery angst to menacing grey-sky grandeur, Rei parsing the lyrics with a dynamic, suspenseful, defiant delivery like Siouxsie Sioux without the microtones. 

The album’s epic title track clocks in at a whopping fourteen minutes plus, opening with atmospherics and Ribot taking a rare turn on acoustic, warily and airily. From there he switches to electric for cumulo-nimbus, Gilmouresque atmospherics behind Rei’s frantically clipped, carnatically-influenced delivery, following Parra’s anguished tale of abandonment.

The ambient Enya-like concluding cut is Run Run se Fue pa’l Norte, an apt song for our time if there ever was one, echoing with more Pink Floyd guitar from Los Tres‘ Angel Parra, Violeta Parra’s grandson. Whether you call this art-rock, jazz, or state-of-the-art remake of Chilean folksongs, it will leave you transfixed, especially if you know the originals.

It’s open to debate if the Trump administration would let an artist like Rei into the country these days, considering his commitment to kissing up to the non-Spanish speaking lunatic fringe.

Marc Ribot’s Young Philadelphians Bring Their Twisted Take on Philly Soul and Disco to Bowery Ballroom

To say that guitarist Marc Ribot doesn’t let the grass grow under his feet is a something of an understatement; where this guy treads turns into Carthage. To take that to its logical extreme; whatever he touches, he destroys – in the best possible sense of the word. The irrepressible downtown polymath’s career high point may be his shadowy, noir 2010 Silent Movies album, but his latest release, Live in Tokyo, with his group the Young Philadelphians – guitarist Mary Halvorson, bassist Jamaladeen Tacuma and drummer G. Calvin Weston – might be the best album of 2016. It’s a volcanic punk-funk record – most of it streaming at the band’s music page -with the same noisy, clenched-teeth exhilaration as Ribot’s 2014 Live at the Village Vanguard set. The premise of this one is typically ambitious: to connect the dots between Ornette Coleman’s 70s/80s Prime Time band and the plush Philly soul which served as a backdrop if not an immediate touchstone. AND to do it with two guitars instead of a horn band. Wild stuff. They’re bringing their careening intensity to a gig this Thursday, July 28 at 11 PM at Bowery Ballroom, a rare appearance by a jazz band at Manhattan’s best-sounding midsize venue. Advance tix are $20, half of what you’d spend if you saw Ribot in any number of jazz clubs. Chris Cochrane subs for Halvorson on the band’s current US tour.

The intro to the album’s opening track, Love Epidemic, is worth the price of admission alone: Ribot blazes through a classic funk riff, then Halvorson comes in with an artery-slashing pickslide, a pickup Japanese string section swirling animatedly overhead. Tacuma anchors all this with his bubbly, purposeful vintage disco lines in tandem with Weston’s straight-up dancefloor pulse. Both guitarists switch on a dime between hard funk and irresistibly jubilant blasts of distorted punk rock. It’s fun to just think about this, let alone hear it or try to play it.

By contrast, the two guitarists’ droll wide-angle tremolo approach on the ballad Love TKO brings to mind Isaac Hayes at his most soulfully hot and buttered. Tacuma and Weston draw on their time with both Coleman and James Blood Ulmer, the bassist strutting and slipsliding, drums moving effortlessly from chill to crush. Ribot builds with fiery deliberation from shivery acid blues to skronk to cap it off.

The group twists Fly, Robin, Fly – a cheesy 1975 hit by German one-hit wonders Silver Convention – into a sick mashup of Bush Tetras and late-period ELO – and then takes it toward saturnine Sun Ra territory. TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia) is just plain hilarious, Weston and the strings opening it as a bombastic Olympic theme over the guitars’ jagged, sandpapery attack, then they hit the groove with a snarky thump. They get a lot looser on an even more sardonic, wah-infused take of the Ohio Players’ Love Rollercoaster, Halvorson having a ball anchoring Ribot and Tacuma’s stoner funk with her cumulo-nimbus ambience and woozy textures.

Do Anything You Want is closer to classic P-Funk than anything else here, and a launching pad for both Halvorson’s and Tacuma’s most incendiary playing. The group winds up the set logically with the funniest number of all, The Hustle. Ribot’s incessant quoting from an iconic anthem from a completely different idiom is as cruel as it is hilarious, finally getting his revenge for having to play the song on a wedding gig decades ago.

On the vocal numbers, it sounds like everybody sings, or at least vocalizes – not that there’s a lot in the way of lyrics, but it adds an extra dimension of fun. Since releasing the album, Ribot explains that the band is now stretching this material out even further, slicing and dicing the big hooks as springboards for even crazier improvisation. That’s an auspicious move since Halvorson’s own legendary ferocity is held in check somewhat here (she plays in the left channel, Ribot in the right).

And in case you haven’t already guessed, the Bowery gig may have something to do with the material on the bill, in addition to the artists. Can’t you see it: two dudes texting back and forth on Okcupid, “Let’s go to this, it’ll be so ironic.” To pronounce that final word correctly you have to hold your nose and say it in as flat and loud a voice as you can while trying to photobomb the selfie being taken by the gentrifier next to you. Steve Wynn put out a couple of dozen brilliant albums before he realized that he needed to write songs about baseball in order to reach a mass audience. Maybe Ribot has to be the leader of the world’s funnest and funniest disco cover band to do the same.

David Krakauer Brings His Exhilarating, Clarinet-Fueled Klezmer Funk to Williamsburg

David Krakauer has been one of the prime movers in wild, edgy klezmer music since his days in the Klezmatics, then leading the self-explanatory Klezmer Madness, which was more or less his fun project when he didn’t have s symphony orchestra gig. One of the world’s most in-demand clarinetists across all styles of music, he’s got a new album, Checkpoint – streaming at Spotify – with his Ancestral Groove band, and an album release twinbill with shows on April 7 at 9:30 PM and the following night, April 8 at 7 PM at National Sawdust. Cover is $25.

The premise of the album is less radical than it might seem, considering that so much of the Eastern European Jewish music that’s filtered down into the klezmer idion is dance music to begin with. As usual, Krakauer brings a no-nonsense band with him: Sheryl Bailey on guitar, Jerome Harris on bass and Michael Sarin on drums. The album kicks off with Kickin’ It For You, a shuffling trip-hop groove over a spare Rob Curto accordion loop, lingering guitar and the liquid, effortlessly spiraling reedwork that remains Krakauer’s stock in trade. A spare, bluesy guitar lead introduces a bobbing, balletesque one from the bandleader.

Krakowsky Boulevard is basically a simple funk vamp with lots of dancing, leaping klezmer clarinet – Krakauer adds even more jaunty, bounding flourishes than he did on the first track, slinky chromatic riffage signaling an entrance from funky guitar and drums. A long, spacy guitar solo eventually brings Krakauer jumping back in, unexpectedly.

Tribe Number Thirteen makes straight-up funk out of a simple chromatic riff, with an enigmatically slinky organ solo by guest John Medeski. Checkpoint Lounge is a deliciously uneasy, slowly crescendoing, even slinkier noir theme: it reminds of Beninghove’s Hangmen at their jazziest.

Marc Ribot guests on Elijah Walks In with a sideswiping guitar solo that starts out as pretty basic funk and then goes scraping the sidewalls, shedding sparks as Krakauer weaves and dips around it. Krakauer plays elegant, distantly mournful lines on Moldavian Voyage, with a trippy, dubby intro, sampled snippets of cantorial singing lurking in the background before it picks up as a lively, shuffling dance.

Krakauer follows Synagogue Wail, a bracing, apprehensively trilling solo piece, with Border Town Pinball Machine, Curto matching the clarinet’s joyous minor-key bounce over a techy, hip-hop influenced beat, Bailey’s shreddy solo taking the silliness over the top.And then they suddenly get serious, revving to redline for the album’s most sizzling peak. A concert recording, Tandal gives Krakauer a launching pad for some feral, shrieking upper-register riffage; the album winds up with an expansive, live second take of Tribe Number Thirteen.

An Intuitive, Eclectic, Spot-On Live Charlie Chaplin Score by Marc Ribot

Earlier this evening Marc Ribot played a live score to the Charlie Chaplin film The Kid at Symphony Space. What was most remarkable was not how perfectly synced Ribot’s aptly acoustic solo score was to the action, or how attuned it was to the filmmaker’s many levels of meaning, or how artful the variations on several themes were constructed. Believe it or not, the show wasn’t completely sold out: there might have been a dozen empty seats, which is awfully unlikely when Ribot plays the Vanguard or the Poisson Rouge. The good news is that this performance isn’t just a one-off thing: the edgy-guitar icon is taking the score on the road with him this year, so it’s a safe bet that if you missed this concert, you’ll get other chances to see him play it here on his home turf.

In case you haven’t seen the film, the 1921 silent flick is very sweet, with plenty of slapstick, irresistible sight gags, Chaplin’s signature populism…and an ending that’s awfully pat. But Ribot didn’t go there: he left off on an enigmatic, unresolved note. To his further credit, he was most present during the film’s most lingering, pensive moments: when there was a brawl, or what passed for special effects sizzle in the early 20s, Ribot backed off and didn’t compete with the vaudevillian antics. His 2010 album Silent Movies (which includes the main theme from this score) is considered a classic of noir composition and rightfully so: Ribot can build toward symphonic levels of menace out of the simplest two-note phrase. Maybe because he was playing completely clean, without any effects, he used more notes than he usually does when playing film music. And the moods were considerably more varied than the rain-drenched, reverbtoned, shadowy ambience Ribot’s cinematic work is known for.

The opening theme here was a characteristic mix of jarring close harmonies and a little Americana; as the characters were introduced, Ribot hinted at flamenco and then ran the gamut of many idioms: enigmatic downtown jazz, oldtime C&W, plaintive early 20th century klezmer pop and eerie neoromanticism, to name a few. Familiar folk and pop themes peeked their heads in and quickly retreated, but in this case the crowd – a multi-generational Upper West mix of diehard jazz people and families out for an especially cool movie night – found the action onscreen more amusing.

A bucolic waltz, a brooding hint of an insistent, repetitive horror melody, allusions to Irving Berlin and of course the noir that’s part and parcel of so much of Ribot’s music shifted shape and repeated when one of Chaplin’s various nemeses – especially Walter Lynch’s no-nonsense beat cop or Edna Purviance’s angst-driven mother to the foundling Chaplin adopts – would make a re-entry. And much as some of these themes would begin very straightforwardly, Ribot didn’t waste any time twisting all of them out of shape. Chaplin’s smalltime scam artist and his ward never have it easy in this timeless tale, and Ribot kept that front and center all the way through. Ribot heads off on yet another European tour soon; watch this space for future hometown dates.

Marc Ribot’s Live Vanguard Album: Wild, Surreal Downtown Guitar Fun

Guitarist Marc Ribot‘s intense, brilliant new Live at the Village Vanguard album (due out May 13 from Pi Recordings) is all about tension and suspense, fueled by his fondness for noise and assault on one hand, and his laserlike sense of melody on the other. To say that Ribot is at the peak of his powers right now is pretty amazing, considering that about 25 years ago he was hyped as being something that no living, breathing musician could possibly live up to. In the years since, he’s come to integrate his squalling, shredding centerstage persona with a stunning command of idioms from across the musical spectrum. Who knew that Ribot was a genius country player? Tift Merritt did, and that’s why she hired him. Even by Ribot’s standards, he’s got a hectic series of shows coming up starting on May 11 at 8 PM with his Ceramic Dog trio (with bassist Shahzad Ismaily and drummer Ches Smith) at Rough Trade on an edgy twinbill with Chris Cochrane’s Collapsible Shoulder with Brian Chase, Mike Duclos and Kevin Bud Jones. The next day Ribot is at le Poisson Rouge with this album’s brilliant, cross-generational rhythm section, Henry Grimes on bass and Chad Taylor on drums. Then on May 13 at 8 Ribot plays a live score to Charlie Chaplin’s ‘The Kid’ at Anthology Film Archives, 32 2nd Ave. And on May 16 his group Los Cubanos Postizos is back at the Poisson Rouge at 7:30ish.

This is a characteristically ambitious effort, recorded during Ribot’s first stand as a bandleader at the Vanguard. It starts with a fifteen-minute one-chord jam and ends with a surprisingly straight-ahead, bluesmetal-tinged romp with a long, suspensefully shuffling drum solo. A lot of it is twisted, evil black magic. But there’s also a gentle, sincere, straight-up trad version of I’m Confessin worthy of Jim Hall. While that testifies to Ribot’s legendary mutability, it’s his signature stuff here that stuns a noisy crowd, beginning with the night’s first number, Coltrane’s Dearly Beloved, Grimes opening it with a neatly shifting, bowed introduction that takes them by surprise. From there, Ribot pulls purposefully and then frenetically against the center, through rises and dips, a brief, haunting, nebulously Middle Eastern interlude, skronk-funk, unimpeded squall and a grimly lowlit drum solo to which Ribot adds eerie blue-light flickers. It’s as much psychedelic art-rock as it is jazz, and it’s riveting.

They segue into Albert Ayler’s The Wizard, done essentially as a boogie with similar dynamic shifts, Ribot holding the center throughout Grimes’ utterly unexpected, marvelously spacious solo before wailing back into goodnatured bluesmetal tempered with downtown grit. By contrast, Old Man River is a clinic in restraint: you can tell that everybody, especially Taylor – who, with his restless rolls and jabs, absolutely owns this number – wants to cut loose but knows they have to chill. Again, Grimes chooses his spots with a spare majesty: it’s a treat to hear somebody as out-there as he can be playing with such a dark, austere intensity. They start Coltrane’s Sun Ship pretty straight-up – if you can call Ribot’s sunbaked, distorted tone straight-up – before taking it into jagged, sidestepping ferocity and then some boisterous leapfrogging from Taylor.  The album’s longest track is Bells, skirting a low-key ballad theme, like Bill Frisell feeling around for some steady footing, negotiating circular, hypnotic spirals, Grimes’ focus anchoring Ribot’s jagged let’s-peel-the-walls shards, droll Stephen Foster quotes and a second-line tinged solo from Taylor. The subtext here is Albert Ayler, with whom Grimes played at the Vanguard the last time he was onstage there prior to his show – almost half a century ago.  You can expect all this and much more at any of Ribot’s upcoming shows, especially at the Poisson Rouge gig on the 12th.

The Ocular Concern: The Coen Brothers Do Twin Peaks, Sonically Speaking

Noir menace, sometimes distant, sometimes front and center and impossible to turn away from, fuels Portland, Oregon instrumentalists The Ocular Concern’s album Sister Cities (streaming at Bandcamp). The band’s music bears considerable resemblance to guitarist Marc Ribot‘s cinematically unfolding themes as well as multi-clarinetist Ben Goldberg‘s Unfold Ordinary Mind narratives, not to mention Ennio Morricone’s 70s work, especially the Taxi Driver score. The group’s main songwriters are guitarist Dan Duval and keyboardist Andrew Oliver, whose electric piano does double duty as bass in the same vein as what Ray Manzarek did with the Doors but with more restraint. The rest of the group includes Stephen Pancerev on drums, Lee Elderton on clarinet and Nathan Beck on vibraphone and mbira.

Surrealism is in full effect with the opening track, a wintry west African mbira theme for vibraphone, bass and drums, Duval’s loopy electric guitar kicking in to raise the ante. Violinist Erin Furbee, violist Brian Quincey and cellist Justin Kagan join the group on the Sister City Suite, which opens alternating between an uneasy calm and jarring strings, then shifts to a snide faux noir latin ambience that’s pure Bernard Herrmann spun through snarky Ribot downtown cool. Alex Krebs adds washes of bandoneon to the sarcastically blithe second segment, its suspenseful pulse evoking the Get Carter soundtrack, finally hitting a roaring punk jazz stomp where Elderton’s clarinet leaves no doubt that this is where the murder happens. From there they move to a cynical, string-driven cha-cha and then follow a fake tango groove with lushly swooping strings contrasting with more of that menacing Ribot-esque reverb guitar. This may be a Pacific Northwest band, but the sound is pure New York circa 1988.

The band’s eponymous track parses coldly glimmering. wistful pastoral jazz, Elderton using its hypnotic rhythm as a launching pad for a slowly crescendoing solo until the piano and drums push it out of the picture. Lafayette, another wintry mbira groove, sounds like the Claudia Quintet without the busy drums, Eldterton’s trilling and eventually thrilling solo being the highlight. They follow that with The Eclectic Piano, essentially a suspiciously blithe variation on the same theme. The album ends with the warmly consonant, narcotic William S. Burroughs, Let’s Go!, Elderton’s alto sax taking a slowly resonant lead over Oliver’s twinkling. echoing electric piano lines. If the Coen Brothers ever did an episode of Twin Peaks, this would be the soundtrack.

Big Lazy Returns with a Vengeance

With a big echoing crash and then a swipe of toxically reverb-drenched guitar, Big Lazy were back like they’d never left. If memory serves right, the world’s darkest noir instrumental band’s last gig had been a record release show in June of 2007 at Luna Lounge in what would soon afterward become the Knitting Factory space. It was the loss of a drummer (Tamir Muskat leaving to join Gogol Bordello and then lead Balkan Beat Box) that did them in. In the wake of the breakup, guitarist Steve Ulrich composed for film and tv, and joined forces with Pink Noise’s Itamar Ziegler, with whom he eventually put out the best album of 2012, the luridly menacing if prosaically titled Ulrich Ziegler. Friday the 12th at Barbes, the back room was packed, a mix of neighborhood folks along with what’s left of the band’s cult following from when they were a regular weekend attraction at Tonic.

Second and third versions of bands are usually pale imitations, but this lineup might be Big Lazy’s best ever  – and they had the brilliant Willie Martinez, the band’s original drummer, guesting on bongos on several songs. The new guys seemed to be jumping out of their shoes to be playing Ulrich’s material. Who knew that drummer Yuval Lion (another Pink Noise alum) could swing as hard as he did? And it figures that Ulrich would have to go outside the rock world, in this case, to the Greenwich Village Orchestra, for their first-chair bassist Andew Hall. Amped as high in the mix as Ulrich’s guitars, Hall anchored the songs in a murky yet precise pulse, adding an occasionally wrathful, pitchblende wash when he played with a bow. Meanwhile, Lion was having a ball with his hardware, pinging and rattling away when he wasn’t swinging a country backbeat or a nonchalant funk groove.

In practically two hours onstage, the band began with the brand-new Bernard Herrmann-style 6/8 blues Swampesque and ended with a typically out-of-breath, desperate Princess Nicotine. In between, they played mostly new material: Ulrich may not have been doing many shows lately, but he’s hardly been idle. Don’t Cross Myrtle blended monster movie improvabilly and purposeful Mingus swing, Lion riding the traps. Lunch Lady chugged along, shedding jagged chromatic sparks, followed by the Lynchian highway anthem Minor Problem, Ulrich’s lapsteel swerving eerily like Eraserhead behind the wheel.

Another new grey-sky highway theme, The Low Way unwound apprehensively, paving the way for a murderously spacious take of Skinless Boneless, a standout track from the band’s second album. Ulrich never stops reinventing his songs – no disrespect to Bill Frisell or Marc Ribot, but there is no more intense guitarist in the world right now. Martinez came up to join them and underscore the murderous tiptoe insistence of Gone, from the band’s third album, and then the rapidfire chase scene Just Plain Scared. The highlight of the second set was Uneasy Street, a morose classic from the band’s first album, Hall unleashing a river of ultraviolet ambience when Ulrich let his lurid, tremoloing lines fade out and handed over the melody. Big Lazy are at the Gutter bowling alley in Williamsburg on May 3 at atound 10 with Sexmob’s Steven Bernstein guesting on trumpet: if dark sounds are your thing, this is a show not to miss

Tift Merritt’s Traveling Alone: Her Best Album

Tift Merritt’s Traveling Alone is THE lead guitar album of 2012. She’s probably one of the least likely people you might expect to be behind something like this. But she deserves it. As somebody who first hit about ten years ago, in the dying hours of the radio-and-records era (she’s on Yep Roc at the moment: tomorrow, who knows) she’s had to shift gears to make a living on the road. And she’s done it: that’s where she is right now, on US tour. Good songwriters always have their choice of good musicians, but the band on this album is monstrous. Marc Ribot and pedal steel virtuoso Eric Heywood team up for some of the most gorgeous interplay on any rock or country record in recent memory, alongside multi-instrumentalist and Laurie Anderson collaborator Rob Burger plus Merritt’s longtime bassist Jay Brown and Calexico’s John Convertino on drums. Producer Tucker Martine finally got a real band to work with – as opposed to the meh-ness of the Decemberists et al. – and obviously had a blast with all the multi-tracking. Songs typically start out spare, even skeletal, but quickly build to a rich, lush thicket of guitars firing at you every which way.

And yet, Merritt’s nuanced voice is still front and center, often trailing down suspensefully at the end of a phrase to draw the listener even closer. She’s lived up to the comparisons ever since people started calling her the new Linda Thompson. The songs here follow a trail of existential angst, a wistfully knowing solitude: Merritt has never written better, or had so much command of a turn of phrase as she does here. For those who like the idea of Lucinda Williams but find the real thing overrated, this is for you.

There’s a romantic side to being alone, and Merritt is no stranger to that. The theme permeates much of the album, beginning with the title track, where she admits to enjoying it, stress and all. This one has Richard and Linda Thompson all over it, Ribot adding sweet tremolo and then a fiery, distorted solo. Sweet Spot radiates longing but not desperation: it’s Williams without the drunken rasp, over a lush bed of steel and tremolo guitar, Ribot taking it to Memphis with his solo. They go deeper into soul with Drifted Apart, Merritt going for Laura Cantrell-ish understatement [memo to self – who is that guy on the faux-Orbison high harmonies? Aaron Neville?]. Still Not Home grafts a slapdash My Sharona riff onto a brisk, anxious country shuffle, Merritt nailing the tense exhilaration as she makes her way out: “All the windows open and the wind and the wheels, nobody can tell me the way that feels.”

The band goes for a slow, hypnotic, bucolic early evening ambience on Feeling of Beauty, Berger’s piano blending with the steel and the web of acoustic guitars: “I’m all right, thanks for asking/Got a few hopes in my basket,” Merritt sings, misty and sultry. Too Soon to Go, a noir countypolitan tune, is just plain gorgeous with its richly intertwining guitar leads, building to an elegant conversation between Ribot and Heywood. Small Talk Relations is arguably the most intense song here, a towering piano anthem that rises from almost skeletal to lushly orchestrated. Merritt matter-of-factly develops her metaphors to a big crescendo:

Workmen in the street below
Softly play the radio
The crowd just turns to leave
A secret current underneath
Cannot be heard above the din below

A plaintive Appalachian ballad fired up with reverb guitar, steel and Rhodes piano, Spring is a defiant defense of living at the edge, existentially speaking. “Only for a minute just to be alive, before I hit the ground just below the spine,” Merritt intones bittersweetly as the song takes flight, up to a viscerally searing Heywood solo: it’s the high point of the album. Ribot’s slashing, bluesy solo out is pretty adrenalizing too.

The next couple of tracks take a surprisingly effective detour into 80s-flavored pop. The first one, To Myself, wears a backbeat country disguise: you want to hate this, but the hook is just plain irresistible. Likewise, In the Way is the Cure, 1986, with the deluxe Americana package: jauntily pulsing ragtime piano, lusciously watery layers of vintage chorus-box guitar and an artful multitracked solo. The closing cut, Marks, a towering breakup ballad, builds slowly to a fiery tangle of guitars, snarling, resonating and jangling as Merritt reaches for the metaphor in the pocket of her winter coat. Albums like this are hard to write about because it’s impossible to resist the temptation to replay the songs – and then they become distractions. Hopefully this is sufficient inspiration for you to investigate it.

Ulrich Ziegler: Album of the Year

Stephen Ulrich is arguably the preeminent noir guitarist of our time. With his signature reverberating blend of twang, skronk and occasional savagery, his playing is darker and more intensely focused than Marc Ribot, more urban than Bill Frisell. For several years Ulrich led the chilling noir instrumental trio Big Lazy; these days he writes big-budget soundtracks for film and tv. He also has a new project, simply called Ulrich Ziegler, with fellow reverb guitarslinger Itamar Ziegler from Pink Noise. Their self-titled debut album is the noir album of the year, maybe the decade – a menacing mix of echoey guitars, slinky beats and haunting cinematic themes. About half the tracks are streaming at the band’s Reverbnation site.

The two guitarists play with such a singlemindedly commitment to maintaining the mood that it’s hard to distinguish between the two: those who’ve seen them live might be able to differentiate between Ziegler’s terse, clenched-teeth precision and Ulrich’s lapses into more slashing, unhinged phrasing. And as absolutely macabre as much as this music is, it’s also playful, imbued with plenty of gallows humor and lively jousting between the musicians. Ulrich’s old Big Lazy pal, Balkan Beat Box’s Tamir Muskat seems to be the guy rumbling behind the drums on most of the faster numbers, while Kill Henry Sugar’s Dean Sharenow holds down the backbeat on the midtempo ones; Wave Sleep Wave’s Yuval Lion is in there somewhere too. Peter Hess, also of Balkan Beat Box, plays a small arsenal of reeds along with Philip Glass collaborator Mick Rossi on keyboards.

The bucolic, Frisell-ish opening track, Since Cincinnati offers very little hint of the menace that’s coming down the pike. A slowly shuffling blue-sky theme, Ulrich’s lapsteel soars and sways, Rossi’s organ swirls as a southwestern gothic theme begins to appear on the distance. Likewise, Twice Town is Lynchian to the core, a Jimmy Webb-style country-pop melody somewhat ironically pinned by undercurrent of unease. A little flailing on the guitar strings, more lapsteel far on the horizon and then a quietly menacing pulse takes it out: a mini-movie for the ears.

Swords and Sandals is where the album really starts to get creepy, a chromatically-spiked, apprehensively tiptoeing bolero that builds tension to the breaking point. A Cuban string quartet eventually joins them and adds lushness – although this album was recorded in bits and pieces around the world, you’d never know it.

Another real creeper is Hermanos Brothers, a funky lowrider serial killer theme. The guitars go from brutal and skronky to a wide-open, warm tremolo, Ulrich eventually opening up the chorus to a shimmery lunar eclipse sostenuto. Tickled To Death sounds like a doublespeed remake of the jaunty Big Lazy latin noir classic Curb Urchin, Ziegler’s outrageously nimble, lickety-split bass pushing Ulrich into dizzying frenzies of tremolo-picking. The layers of guitar grow to the point where it’s literally impossible to tell who’s playing what.

The two best, and darkest tracks here might be the waltzes. His Story is sort of a theme for the haunted room at the Plaza hotel where the ballet dancer went out on the ledge and never came back. A gleefully macabre marionette theme, it sets evil upper-register guitar clusters over pinpoint rhythm, Hess’ baritone sax moving it out of the shadows just enough to raise the horror factor a tinge. Ita Lia is more moody and morose, with hints of Belgian musette and Django Reinhardt and ghostly high organ flourishes that offer something approximating comic relief but never quite go there.

Pieces, a murky, morbid one-chord jam, builds to a shivery baritone sax solo that bass saxophonist Colin Stetson (from Tom Waits’ band) bludgeons off the page. Pipe Dream, an opiated lullaby shifting in and out of rhythmic focus, sounds like the Beatles’ And I Love Her done as a jazz ballad. The most sardonic track here is the wryly bouncy Fornever, while Space Enthusiast, an outer space dirge of sorts, wouldn’t be out of place on a recent Church album.

They go deep into spaghetti western shadows with Cross My Heart, Ulrich’s menace growing as the band follows him from hypnotic to lush, then down to a dead rodeo clown interlude of sorts (that’s just one possible image out of many that this music evokes: give it a listen and come up with your own). The album ends with a casually expert twin-guitar cover of Caravan as laid-back as the Ventures’ version was frantic, Ulrich’s fuzzbox attack building from Ziegler’s offhand cynicism. After a certain point, to try to rank one classic album over another becomes meaningless. Is Mingus Mingus Mingus better than Angelo Badalamenti’s first Twin Peaks soundtrack? Is Miles Davis’ score to Ascenseur Pour L’Echafaud (Elevator to the Gallows) better than this album? Not really. They’re all classic. One thing for certain is that if this blog is still lurking in the shadows when they get really dark at the end of the year, you will see this album somewhere around the top of the best albums of 2012 list.