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Carol Lipnik and Matt Kanelos Hold the Crowd Rapt in the East Village

Carol Lipnik might not just be the best singer in New York – she might be the best singer anywhere. That’s not as impossible as it might seem, considering Lipnik’s vast four-octave range, as strong in the depths as it is in the stratosphere. But there are dozens of women around the world who can hit the highs and the lows, hard: Lipnik distinguishes herself with soul, and passion, and her dark wit and mystical stage presence and subtle, subtext-drenched lyrics. Like Dory Previn – a possible, distant influence, maybe – she’s invented her own genre. It’s avant garde in the purest sense of the word, fearless and adventurous to the nth degree. But where much of the avant garde is harsh and forbidding, Lipnik’s songs draw equally on contemporary classical, Romantic art-song, the far side of opera, artsy psychedelia like Radiohead and first-rate tunesmiths like Richard Thompson – whom Lipnik has memorably covered in the past. And they draw you in. She has a Sunday night residency beginning March 8, a series of intimate duo performances with pianist Matt Kanelos at 7 PM at Pangea at 178 2nd Ave (11th/12th St.) Cover is $20; reservations to 212 995-0900 are a good idea since it’s a cozy space.

Her most recent show there drew heavily on songs from her shattering new album Almost Back to Normal, current frontrunner for 2015’s best release. The title track was one of the night’s highlights, Kanelos anchoring it with a terse, minimalist insistence as Lipnik took flight with its imploring mantra of a chorus. Lipnik is Coney Island born and bred, is drawn to water imagery and is troubled by oceanic crises, from hurricanes to exploding nuclear power plants. She didn’t reference either of those recent historical events directly, but her ocean is a turbulent one these days, more so than when she was building a strong back catalog of colorful, carnivalesque, ragtime and noir cabaret influenced material.

As the night went on, Kanelos’ elegantly tidal, hypnotic Philip Glass circles anchored Lipnik’s gentle, understated longing and angst. Among the new songs, Honeypot mashed up vintage Laura Nyro soul with anxious minimalism, a grinning, unselfconsciously sensual confection. Lipnik voiced the menacing voices of a stunned group of metaphorical birds in Crow’s Nest, then took the energy to the top of the mountain with the soaring, anthemic Sonadora Dreamer.

She brought back the menace a bit later with the cautionary tale The Things That Make You Grow and its biting chromatics, an attempt to create a sonic counterpart to a William Blake illuminated manuscript. A brooding setting of cult poetess Helen Adam’s alienated Farewell Stranger was done as a rippling blend of rugged Appalachian rusticity and fin-de-siecle Paris salon music. Another angst-fueled highlight was a new song by Kanelos, Lipnik channeling the sheer emotional depletion of a pacifist abandoned in a world torn by senselessness and war.

There were also a handful of covers: a minimalist art-rock take of Leonard Cohen’s The Gypsy’s Wife; an almost imperceptibly crescendoing, plaintively wounded cover of Harry Nilsson’s Life Line. and an absolutely hilarious and equally dazzling grand guignol cover of The Twist that was part Klaus Nomi and part Lux Interior. Joey Arias also made a cameo, bringing the house down with a catty, spot-on Billie Holiday evocation as Kanelos supplied a deadpan, bluesy backdrop. It was a long set: other originals spanned from echoes of plainchant to vaudeville to the baroque to theremin music. Lipnik and Kanelos really gave the crowd their money’s worth and then some. You’ll be hearing more about that amazing new album here a bit later on.

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Haunting, Uneasy Psychedelia from Matt Kanelos

Matt Kanelos is one of New York’s most sought-after pianists. He’s half of Carol Lipnik‘s haunting Ghosts in the Ocean project, plays with psychedelic Americana chanteuse Jenifer Jackson and Canadian gothic bandleader Lorraine Leckie as well as in sardonic jazz guitarist Jon Lundbom‘s band. Kanelos’ original songs are as smart and distinctive as the artists he shares the stage with. His new album Love Hello – streaming at Bandcamp – is a masterpiece of pensive, allusively lyrical psychedelia. To paraphrase one of his bandmates (guess which one!), it’s part hypnotic Wilco Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, part metrically tricky, artsy Radiohead and part Terry Riley in ultra-minimalist mode.

Kanelos alternates between keyboards and guitars on this album, with a core band of Kyle Sanna on guitar, Ben Gallina on bass and Conor Meehan on drums. The album’s starkly opening track Where the Seed Grows sets the stage, Kanelos’ spare, lustrous piano lingering over a simple, distantly uneasy acoustic guitar pulse. It’s arguably the album’s most haunting cut:

I know the mountain and the shore
I don’t go there anymore
They’re fighting a ground war
I heard the message in the drum
I know the places they come from
I hit the wind chime with my thumb
I thought that it would give me some
I’ll wait for the wind to come

The second track, Wonderland is a variation on the same melodic theme, a psychedelic nocturne with similarly marvelous, sparse piano, hints of Americana and a slow descent into grey-sky atmospherics. Video Town, another variation, evokes Radiohead’s Pyramid Song with its rhythmically tricky vamps, wary ambience and long, insistent crescendo as it winds up and then out.

And the Line could be the Church at their most low-key covering Neil Young, a dusky, airy Indian summer theme lit up by Sanna’s casually intense tremolo-picking. By contrast, Island Animals has an eerie, surreal, noisy Daydream Nation anxiousness, a reflection on aging and imminent doom that morphs into a slowly swaying paisley underground vamp and then back up. “The country wears a green disguise and you’re spinning on the earth alone, no filter to protect your eyes, animals a headstone,” Kanelos intones.

The Brink mingles layers and loops of keys into a terse, nebulous lament that segues into a brief, slowly marching solo piano take of the Charles Mingus composition Duke Ellington’s Sound of Love. Earth Man is a broodingly sarcastic apocalyptic reflection set to a slow, stately, uneasily swaying rhythm, Gallina artfully raising the intensity with judiciously placed chords behind Kanelos’ chiming electric piano, blippy layers of keys and a chorus of wordless vocals. Kanelos ends the album with its most skeletal track, North, a guardedly optimistic mood piece. The cd comes in a cool full-color package with surreal, thought-provoking photos by Kanelos and Marie Lewis, an apt visual counterpart to the music. In its quietly provocative way, it’s one of the best albums to come over the transom here so far this year.