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Carol Lipnik and Tareke Ortiz Channel the Spirits on Halloween at Lincoln Center

Thursday night at Lincoln Center, Carol Lipnik emerged from the back of the room, irridescent in a shiny gown, like the Chrysler Building under a blood moon. Opening the night with her distinctive version of Harry Nillsson’s Lifeline. she was working the crowd before she could be seen. “Hello, is there anybody else here?”

As he would do all night, pianist Matt Kanelos played with a neoromantic poignancy matched to steely focus. Lipnik’s crystalline voice – widely acknowledged as the best in New York – has never sounded so rich,, from the shivery vibrato in her upper register, all the way to to a stern contralto, four octaves and counting. Her songs have a phantasmagorical yet often extraordinarily subtle social relevance. She spread the wings of her gown: “Welcome to the seance!”

The duo followed with Tom Ward’s brisk, shamanistic, menacingly chromatic minor-key anthem Spirits Be Kind to Me.At the end, she pulled a simple, rhythmic invocation – “Spirits!” from the crowd. Then she got them howling, literally, with a spare, desolate take of Michael Hurley’s The Werewolf.

Kanelos imbued The Oyster and the Sand with Moonlight Sonata glimmer as Lipnik pondered the price of beauty extracted from the ocean, rising to achingly operatic heights over sampled coastal sounds. Coney Island born and raised, ocean imagery pervades her repertoire. Then the two made an elegantly sardonic, vintage soul-infused romp out of a Halloween staple, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ I Put a Spell on You..They’d return to more obscure Halloween fare with a doomed take of Dylan’s The Man in the Long Black Coat a little later on.

Mexico City-based crooner Tareke Ortiz then took a page from Lipnik’s playbook, emerging even more slowly from the opposite side of the room in a Viking outfit, horns and lavish facepaint as his pianist, bassist and drummer built ominous, neoromantic ambience. “We travel tragically, toward the cold of our own voice, when it comes from outside ourselves. From the girl next door, from a window across the street, fom a dark alley and the wrong turn, from beyond the clouds and stars above, or from beyond the border,” he mused introducing an enigmatic, bolero-esque torch song.

The pianist switched to accordion for the carnivalesque waltz I’m Going Nowhere, which did double duty as defiant immigrant anthem and workingman’s lament. He and the group went back to slowly swinging latin noir cabaret to contemplate jealousy, then mined the Sylvia Rexach catalog to raise the angst factor. From there he invoked the muted, dashed hopes of refugees.

Lipnik and Kanelos returned for the circus rock of Freak House Blues, a big clapalong hit with audience. Her next song was steadier and more hypnotic: a simple “How?” was the nmantra.

“The last message received from the Mars Rovers was, ‘My bettery is low and it’s getting dark’ and this is a reenactment,” Lipnik explained, then brought the robot vehicle to life…for barely a minute.

With its sharp-fanged chromatics and grimly metaphorical call to fight, most menacing number of the night, Halloween standards notwithstanding, was The Things That Make You Grow, After a plaintively macabre take of the doomed tale of the Two-Headed Calf (who’s destined for a museum rather than the slaughterhouse), Ortiz returned with dark, abandoned love ballads and then a slowly coalescing song told from the pont of view of someone who goes into the desert knowing they may never be coming back.

Lipnik and Ortiz then joined forces to mash up stately mariachi and birdsong, and closed with a noir cabaret take of the Talking Heads’ Psycho Killer. By now, Lipnik could make this crowd do anything:, reaffirming that “We are vain and we are blind””is just as true now as it was in 1979. What a great way to get away from the amateurs and have a real Halloween.

The next free concert at the Lincoln Center atrium space on Broadway just north of 62nd St. is Nov 7 at 7:30 PM with shamanistic all-female Korean art-rock band The Tune. Get there early if you’re going.

Haunting Singer Carol Lipnik’s East Village Residency Takes On New Relevance

This past Sunday evening at Pangea, Carol Lipnik reached for the rafters, with her voice and with her hand, as if trying to pull stars from the sky. It wasn’t as if she was imploring some unseen force, but there was a quiet desperation as her four-octave voice rose to the stratosphere. Behind her, Matt Kanelos built a twilit mist of electronics and then played steady, lustrous neoromantic piano chords to anchor his longtime collaborator’s uneasy flights upward.

“We’ve fallen backward into a strange abyss of imperfection,” Lipnik mused, in between songs. Iridescent in a shimmery midnight blue dress, she addressed the ugly events of the past week with grim understatement. “Our pleasure ship has hit an iceberg. My life raft is made of paper, and my oar, a pen…my song is a torn sail, my voice the ripping wind.” Much as Lipnik’s performances, and especially her lyrics, can be both hilarious and heartwrenching, this was out of character.

Then again, we’ve all been wrenched from our comfort zones. Calmly and matter-of-factly, Lipnik built a dynamic intensity that rose and fell, laced with dark punk rock humor and ominous nature imagery. The fun stuff included a leap to the rafters with a boisterous cover of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ I Put a Spell on You that its author would no doubt have been proud of. Lipnik channeled Klaus Nomi in a phantasmagorical version of The Twist. She drew the most feverish applause when she introduced a famous 60s cabaret-rock hit. “The Barnum and Bailey circus is going out of business, Lipnik explained. “Now there’s a new circus in town. Let’s all drink to the death of a clown!” Without further elaboration, the duo onstage brought out every ounce of creepiness in Dave Davies’ metaphorically-loaded circus narrative. Later, the two brought out far more angst than hope in a relentlessly steady take of Leonard Cohen’s Anthem.

The most bittersweet number of the night was a brand-new, rather elegaic collaboration with David Cale titled A History of Kisses. The most apt for the moment was an insistent minor-key art-rock anthem titled Beast Bird, a familiar bestiary facing an even more familiar peril. An elegantly surreal “torch song to a wild goose,” a disquietingly airy take of Goddess of Imperfection – Lipnik’s theme song for her ongoing Pangea residency – and the allusive eco-disaster parable My Piano (which was a tree in a past life) completed the picture. Lipnik’s weekly Sunday shows in the sonically exquisite back room at this comfortable East Village boite are almost as legendary as her vocal range; the show continues this Sunday, Feb 5 at around 7 PM.

Midway through the show, Lipnik brought up Witchfinder Witch, the brand-new duo collaboration between Dennis Davison, frontman of LA psychedelic rock legends the Jigsaw Seen and folk noir songstress Lorraine Leckie, who were making their Manhattan debut. She delivered a cute singalong about legendary Lower East Side dive Mars Bar; he held the crowd rapt with The Unhappiest Man Under the Sun with Leckie on piano, a song that no doubt spoke for a lot of people in the crowd.

Carol Lipnik Sings This Year’s Most Hauntingly Mesmerizing Halloween Show

Last night a hunter moon cast its merciless stare over downtown Manhattan, opening some casually concealing corners to predators of all kinds. Inside on the lowlist stage at Pangea, Carol Lipnik took a rapt, silent audience on similarly moonlit journey through ominously murky water imagery, into a world populated by dead clowns, where spirit wolves circle your tracks, hungry ghosts gaze on your flesh and where the only real way to happiness is to get high. With her right hand raised, palm up, as if to conjure a stairway to a better galaxy, she worked every inch of her vast four-octave range throughout a chillingly dynamic, loosely thematic, tragicomically existentialist show. Lipnik has held down a weekly 7 PM Sunday night residency at Pangea for the better part of two years – if there’s any show you should see this Halloween month, this is it. Cover is $20, deals are available through Lipnik’s website and the good food here will ground you in reality while Lipnik takes you elsewhere. One suspects that she’ll really pull out all the stops at the October 30 show.

Widely regarded as the best singer in New York, Lipnik and her longtime pianist Matt Kanelos distill elements of noir cabaret, art-song, psychedelic rock, 70s freak-folk, theatre music and jazz into a blacklit reflecting pool. Kanelos – who is every bit as integral to this performance as Lipnik – held mostly to a rapturous low-midrange resonance, equal parts neoromanticism and jazz, often adding sepulchral electronic touches as well. The duo reinvented Nick Drake’s Black Eyed Dog as a relentless stalker theme, with a glittering chain-link rattle from the piano and Lipnik’s increasingly apprehensive echo effects. She worked two mics, one with a murderously muffled reverb, taking the phantasmagoria in Ray Davies’ Death of a Clown to new levels. The Screamin’ Jay Hawkins classic I Put a Spell On You was more slow conjury than it was outright witchy – until Lipnik picked up her kazobo and blew evilly jealous crow’s cries at the end.

The two gave a bittersweet Celtic lilt to Biff Rose’s cult classic, Molly, but left no doubt that this sad clown’s descent ends at the very bottom of the abyss. Ride on the Light of the Moon, a Lipnik/Kanelos co-write and the night’s most guardedly optimistic interlude, waltzed along with a pensive grace, the singer pulling out all the stops for a stratospheric, operatic coda. The night’s sardonic theme song, Goddess of Imperfection (a co-write with Taneke Ortiz) brought back the lingering echo effects thanks to Michael Jurin‘s pinpoint-precise sound design. Lipnik introduced him at the end as the “fifth Beatle” in this project, and she’s right.

She looked back with equal parts fondness and tongue-in-cheek ghoulishness to Klaus Nomi for her creepy outer-space version of The Twist. But her originals were the night’s strongest songs. A new one set a bestiary of aphroristic Brothers Grimm images over Kanelos’ insistent minimalism. The brooding waltzes Oh, The Tyrrany and The Oyster and the Sand contemplated the ravages of time along with waterborne apocalypse. A steady, suspenseful nocturne based on the James Tate poem Peggy in the Twilight found Lipnik half-singing, half-speaking a wry mystery tale about a woman whose eccentricity isn’t limited to cocktail hour choices like grasshoppers and sidecars. They closed with a harrowing, galloping, Sisyphean art-rock setting of Helen Adam’s poem Farewell, Stranger, encoring with what could be the most enigmatic Moon River ever, then Kanelos’ doomed, politically-charged parlor-pop ballad Nonviolent Man.

And special guest chantuese Gay Marshall – who has a four-week, Paris-themed stand this month at Pangea starting this Tuesday, Oct 18 at 7 PM – made a vivid and apt cameo midway through the show, joining Kanelos in a take of Autumn Leaves featuring Marshall’s own translation of the original French lyrics, revealing new levels of angst and longing.

Carol Lipnik Hangs a Star in the Heavens at Joe’s Pub

Considering the rapt, otherworldly ambience that singer Carol Lipnik likes to create onstage, there’s always some kind of magic in the ether. But even by her bewitching standards, this past week’s first installment of her three-Thursday March residency at Joe’s Pub was a special kind of sorcery. She and her new trio – longtime pianist Matt Kanelos joined by his longtime collaborator Kyle Sanna on lead guitar and keyboards – had opened with a deep-space cover of Harry Nilsson’s Lifeline, evoking an anguish and desolation unmatched even by the original..

Expanding on a key line from the song, Lipnik asked the crowd, “Is there anybody out there?” Laughter was their first response. Afterward, when she scampered out into the audience with her mic at the end of Tom Ward’s Spirits Be Kind to Me, there was no joke in how almost instinctively they sang along with her vocalese, in harmony, even.

And kept that ghostly “oooooh” going into the next song: Michael Hurley’s The Werewolf. All of a sudden the singalong had new dimension. Was this suddenly supposed to be creepy, or mysterious, or coyly funny? All of the above, maybe. That’s Lipnik at the top of her enigmatic game, always allowing for fun but also for 180 degrees from that.

Like the longingly elegaic title track from her most recent album, Almost Back to Normal, which gave her one of many opportunities to go to the stratospheric top of her four-octave range. She’d written that, and much of the album, in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. “It’s not like you can go back to normal…whatever that might be,” she cautioned the crowd.

Decked out in a slinky black lace dress and shimmery vintage silverplate necklace, dark brown eyes glistening and intent under sharp auburn bangs, she swayed, and shimmied a little during a drolly hilarious, Klaus Nomi-influenced goth-opera cover of The Twist. More than once, she stood tall and then gently hung invisible stars from the sky, mirroring the elusively distant places her voice would travel to, along with the hope and longing in her darkly allusive songs.

Kanelos is a polymath pianist and a masterful, meticulous accompanist. He and Lipnik have a rare chemistry, her vibrato modulating in perfect time with his steady, resonantly Schubertian phrasing throughout their hour onstage, when he wasn’t taking wit-infused detours into saloon blues, acerbic downtown jazz or lingering Keith Jarrett-like phrases. Sanna is the rare guitarist who knows that less is more and that in this project, especially, every note counts. When he wasn’t providing methodically propulsive jangle, carefully considered fingerpicking or judiciously minimalist accents, he was adding coolly low-key washes of synth for dub-like atmosphere.

Lipnik ended the set with a brand-new number, My Piano – as in “My piano was once a tree” – taking a steady, mysterious climb upwards, one note at a time, until it seemed that there was no high note that her voice couldn’t hit. Listening back to the show, that high note appears to be Eb above Eb above Eb above middle C – but you know how recordings sometimes aren’t pitch-perfect. Wouldn’t it be a thrill if Lipnik could come out of this month’s residency with a live album to show for it? She’s back at Joe’s Pub on March 10 and 17 at 7:30 PM; cover is $16.

The 50 Best Albums of 2015

Seven or eight years ago, everyone was predicting the demise of the album. That hasn’t happened, and as long as we have recording technology, it won’t. A few other predictions from the past decade, however, have come true. Albums these days tend to be shorter, and artists are releasing fewer of them. And as a result, they’re consistently better, since acts are no longer contractually obliged to record labels to churn out product regardless of whether or not they’ve got first-class material ready to go. A couple of artists on this list are on boutique labels, but everybody else is independent.

On this page you’ll find a link to stream each album in its entirety. Whenever possible, those links are to ad-free sites like Bandcamp or Soundcloud so you can multitask in comfort without having to ride the fader to mute the ads. Considering the vast number of albums released in any calendar year, you shouldn’t regard this list as gospel. It is, however, an informed survey based on careful triage followed by a sampling of several thousand releases, and then a locked-in, analytical listen to the best 500 or so, from this past January up to the present date. A LOT of time went into this. For purposes of keeping the list under control, none of the many thousands of excellent jazz, classical and avant garde releases are represented here. Realistically, there’s a limit on how much territory a single blog can cover.

The one collection that packed the most mighty wallop – a pretty quiet one, actually – and wins the title of best album of 2015 is Who’s Counting, by Rachelle Garniez. With gallows humor, terse piano, accordion and spare acoustic guitar, it’s the New York songwriter’s shortest, most intimate and darkest album, a masterpiece of existentialist rock, grim explorations of mortality and global carnage juxtaposed with jaunty, sultry, cabaret-flavored set pieces. This is the second time a release by Garniez has topped this list: her 2007 album Melusine Years ranked #1 that year at this blog’s predecessor. Stream it at Spotify

As far as the rest of this rich crop is concerned, there’s no ranking here, since there are so many styles to choose from. Seriously: what’s better? Carol Lipnik‘s otherworldly art-rock, Twin Guns’ savage garage-punk and horror surf, or Hungrytown‘s magnificently pensive folk noir? Apples and oranges, right? These albums are all so good that they can stand alongside anything here.

Les Sans Culottes- Les Dieux Ont Soif/The Gods Are Thirsty
The New York-based faux-French rockers deliver their most satirical, bitingly hilarious, spot-on critique yet…in French, of course, with a harder, more guitar-fueled edge than the retro 60s psychedelic pop they’re known for. Stream it at Soundcloud

Regular Einstein – Chimp Haven
Velvet-voiced, wickedly lyrical janglerock songwriter Paula Carino is another artist who topped the Best Albums of the Year list at this blog’s predecessor. In her case, that release was 2010’s Open on Sunday. This is her first new one – since the 90s, in fact -with her original New York band, packed with delicious double entendres, bittersweet narratives and tricky time signatures. Stream it at Bandcamp

The Bright Smoke – Terrible Towns
Haunting singer/guitarist Mia Wilson’s full-length debut with this atmospheric, blues-infused art-rock project ranks with Joy Division for angst-fueled, white-knuckle intensity. Stream it at Bandcamp

The Sideshow Tragedy Capital
Guitarist/frontman Nathan Singleton brings a ferocious, bitterly apocalyptic lyrical sensibility to his fiery gutter-blues band. Stream it at Bandcamp

Charming Disaster – Love, Crime & Other Trouble
Jeff Morris of the phantasmagorical Kotorino and Ellia Bisker of dark chamber pop band Sweet Soubrette join forces on their debut full-length release, a lyrically and historically rich mix of murder ballads and tales of relationships gone spectacularly wrong. Stream it at Bandcamp

Carol Lipnik – Almost Back to Normal
The best album by the best singer on this list, a launching pad for her spectacular four-octave vocal range, backed by luminous, hypnotic piano from Matt Kanelos and strings by Jacob Lawson. Allusive apocalyptic themes of natural and manmade disaster and post-9/11 terror linger in the distance. Stream it at Mermaidalley.com

Ember Schrag – The Folkadelphia Sessions
Hypnotically Beatlesque art-rock, smoldering Macbeth-inspired narratives and a killer Great Plains gothic anthem by the style’s most lyrical and distinctive practitioner. Stream and download it free from the Folkadelphia page

Twin Guns – The Last Picture Show
A mighty leap for the ferocious power trio, including but not limited to their Cramps-style stomp. This one’s a lot more psychedelic and noir surf-oriented. Stream it at Bandcamp

Lorraine Leckie & Pavel Cingl – The Raven Smiled
Spare and surreal yet majestically enveloping art-rock and Slavic folk noir sounds from the Canadian gothic songstress and Czech violin wizard. Stream it at Bandcamp

Rachel Mason – The Lives of Hamilton Fish
One of the darkest albums on this list, this lush, evocative mix of historically-inspired janglerock and folk noir traces the seeemingly unconnected lives of two early 20th century figures who shared the same name: a serial killer and the scion of a famous New York political legacy. Stream it at Bandcamp

King Raam – A Day & a Year
A majestic, brooding Iranian art-rock record by the pseudonymous expat baritone crooner and bandleader. Lyrics in Persian. Stream it at Soundcloud

Fernando Viciconte – Leave the Radio On
The noir rock bandleader originally hails from Argentina; this haunted, doomed concept album, with significant contributions from REM’s Peter Buck and others, could be the great lost Steve Wynn release. Stream it at Bandcamp

Litvakus– Raysn: The Music of Jewish Belarus
A rousing, exhilarating mix of rare Jewish dance numbers,lively originals and morose folk tunes from the badlands of Polesia, in the corner where Belarus, Poland, Latvia and the Ukraine meet. One of the best party albums on this list. Stream it at Bandcamp

Raya Brass Band – Raya
Another awesome party album, the third release by the New York Balkan group is their most original, stylistically and emotionally diverse one yet, incorporating Ethiopian and latin sounds into their rapidire chromatics. Stream it at Bandcamp

Tipsy Oxcart – Upside Down
A fat rock rhythm section anchors these deliriously edgy minor-key Balkan, Turkish and Jewish themes and originals. Stream it at Bandcamp

Marianne Dissard – Cologne Vier Takes
The southwestern gothic/art-rock chanteuse and bandleader at the top of her uneasy game, in a mix of richly atmospheric yet intimate versions from her darkly lyrical catalog. Lyrics in French. Stream it at Bandcamp

Tom Warnick & the World’s Fair – Side Effects
The well-loved noir rock cult figure turns in a characteristically diverse mix of ghoulabilly, noir swing, soul and blues, all with his signature black humor and a luridly smoky band behind him. Stream it at Spotify

Matt Keating – This Perfect Crime
Getting away with murder is the loosely interconnecting theme on this typically diverse blend of janglerock, Stonesy stomp, Americana and soul-infused sounds, all with Keating’s richly sardonic, literate lyricism. Stream it at Mattkeating.com

Tracy Island – War No More
The long-awaited full-length debut from captivating singer/multi-instrumentalist Liza Garelik Roure – former leader of deviously psychedelic popsters Liza & the WonderWheels – is her catchiest and most pensively colorful yet, fueled by husband Ian Roure’s sizzling lead guitar. Stream it at Lizasongs.com

Bliss Blood & Al Street – Unspun
The iconic noir torch song heroine builds lowlit, lurid, delectably lyrical ambience in an intimate duo recording with her longtime flamenco-inspired six-string guy. Stream it at Bandcamp

Orphan Jane – A Poke in the Eye
Deviously witty, creepy noir cabaret and circus rock from this irrepressibly theatrical, Brecht/Weill-inspired New York crew. Stream it at Bandcamp

The Universal Thump – Walking the Cat
Famously recorded at Abbey Road Studios, frontwoman/keyboardist Greta Gertler has never written with greater wit or purist pop chops than she does here with her lush chamber pop/art-rock project. Stream it at Bandcamp

Sarah Kirkland Snider – Unremembered
The most lavishly orchestrated album on this list features vocals from Padma Newsome and Shara Worden throughout a mix of brooding, sweeping art-rock reflections on harrowing childhood experiences and similar trauma. Stream it at Bandcamp

Goddess – Paradise
The latest release by the phantasmagorical New York art-rock band captures them in creepily enveloping psychedelic mode. Stream it at Bandcamp

Bobtown – A History of Ghosts
Eerie, sepulcural Appalachian folk tunes, creepy newgrass, retro soul, murder ballads, black humor galore and exquisite four-part harmonies from the band that might be the best folk noir act around. Stream it at Bobtownmusic.com

Mike RimbaudPut That Dream in Your Pipe and Smoke It
Yet another provocative, surrealistically lyrical, tight powerpop and retro new wave record from one of the most fearlessly funny, spot-on chroniclers of post-9/11 global society anywhere. Stream it at Spotify

Hungrytown – Further West
The most elegantly arranged and arguably best album by poignant Americana songstress Rebecca Hall and multi-instrumentalist Ken Anderson’s plaintive folk noir band Stream it at Spotify

The Sway Machinery – Purity & Danger
One of the great guitar albums on this list, this richly textured, intricately arraanged, soaring collection of anthems sees the band venturing further from desert rock toward cantorially-inspired psychedelia. Stream it at Spotify

The TarantinosNYC – Surfin’ the Silver Screen
Catchy, fun, vividly cinematic surf rock, spy themes and psychedelic soul from one of NYC’s most original instrumental units. Stream it at Spotify

Dalava – their debut album
Guitar polymath Aram Bajakian and his haunting singer wife Julia Ulehla combine to reinvent stark traditional Moravian themes with an electric edge. Stream it at Bandcamp  

Patricia Santos – Never Like You Think
The auspicious, intense, eclectic soul-infused debut by the charismatic cello rocker and Kotorino member. Stream it at Bandcamp

Eleni Mandell – Dark Lights Up
Los Angeles noir soul, bittersweet torch song and Americana by an icon of dark retro songcraft. Stream it at Spotify

The Whiskey Charmers – their debut album
Twin Peaks C&W, Appalachian gothic, dark blues and jangly rock from this shadowy, female-fronted Detroit dark Americana band. Stream it at Thewhiskeycharmers.com

Figli di Madre Ignota – Bellydancer
High-energy, Gogol Bordello-esque circus rock and Romany punk songs with hilarious, satirical lyrics in Italian and English. Stream their “spaghetti Balkan” sounds at Soundcloud

The Frank Flight Band – The Usual Curse
The British counterpart to Blue Oyster Cult reach back into the vaults for this haunted mix of Doorsy art-rock, shapeshifting psychedelia and unexpectedly macabre gothic sounds. Stream it at cdbaby

Dawn Oberg – Bring
The irrepressible parlor pop pianist/chanteuse at the top of her sardonic, lyrically rich game in this mix of personality portraits and psychopathological analysis. Stream it at Dawnoberg.com

Jennifer Hall – her debut ep
An intriguing, auspicious mashup of noir soul and art-rock from the powerfully nuanced Chicago song stylist and her excellent, eclectic band. Stream it at Spotify

The Grasping Straws – their debut album
Edgy songwriter/guitarist Mallory Feuer’s snarling, hard-hitting, scruffy, defiantly lyrical first full-length effort goes in a more straightforward, less jazz-inspired direction than the band’s initial ep. Stream it at Bandcamp

Ben Von Wildenhaus– II
Southwestern gothic, slinky bellydancer noir themes and Twin Peaks atmospherics from the loopmusic guitar master and esteemed noir soundscaper. Stream it at Soundcloud

Naked Roots Conducive – Sacred521
Cellist Valerie Kuehne and violinist Natalia Steinbach’s tormentedly cinematic, surrealistically intense art-rock dives menacingly and blackly amusingly into themes of alienation and ahwer despair. Stream it at Bandcamp

Lions – their debut ep
A slinky, trippy mix of Ethiopian grooves, Israeli stoner rock jams and cinematic themes. Stream it at Bandcamp

George Usher & Lisa Burns – The Last Day of Winter
Intense, autumnal purist powerpop, blue-eyed soul and psych-pop tunesmithing from two highly regarded, veteran songcrafters. Stream it at Spotify

Banda de los Muertos – their debut album
Epic, ornate, richly arranged, reinvented Mexican brass band ranchera themes and sweepingly majestic, blazing originals from trombonist Jacob Garchik’s imaginative big brass ensemble. Stream it at Spotify 

Spanglish Fly – New York Boogaloo
A hard-hitting, wickedly arranged, cleverly crafted update on classic 60s salsa soul from this irrepressible, danceable, psychedelic New York outfit. Stream it at Bandcamp

Curtis Eller & the New Town Drunks – Baudelaire in a Box: Songs of Anguish
Intriguing new translations of classic, surrealistically creepy Baudelaire poems set to starkly bluesy, phantasmagorical tunes by the charismatic circus rock bandleader and the Eastern Seaboard noir group. Stream it at Bandcamp

Elisa Flynn – My Henry Lee
The darkly eclectic songwriter and hauntingly luminous chanteuse’s most spare, terse album blends starkly funny individualist anthems with more pensive material and a classic murder ballad. Stream it at Bandcamp

Fireships – their debut album
Imaginatively arranged Americana rock and chamber pop with a fearlessly aware, Dylanesque, populist lyricism. Stream it at Bandcamp

The Amphibious Man – Witch Hips
Enigmatically lo-fi, twistedly Lynchian, surf-tinged reverb rock. Like nothing else on this list and yet in a way like an awful lot on this list, in terms of general darkness. Stream it at Bandcamp

The Honeycutters – Me Oh My
Oldschool female-fronted honkytonk with a newschool, sharply literate, defiantly populist lyrical edge. Stream it at Spotify

The Old Ceremony – Sprinter
Folk noir and serpentine, intricately arranged, Lynchian art-rock and chamber pop from Django Haskins’ darkly eclectic band. Stream it at youtube – but BE CAREFUL – a loud audio starts immediately when you click the link, mute the sound before you do

For more yummy clickbait, other 2015 lists here include the forthcoming playlist at the Best Songs of 2015 page and the Best New York Concerts of 2015 page.

Rachelle Garniez Stuns and Seduces the Crowd at Pangea

Many cognoscenti in the New York music scene consider Rachelle Garniez the best songwriter in town, and some would argue that she she might simply be the best songwriter anywhere. A couple of nights ago at Pangea she bolstered that argument, playing to a rapt and wildly appreciative hometown crowd in a duo show with bassist Tim Luntzel. Despite having to sit because he was in a walking cast, he supplied terse, elegantly elastic lines to anchor Garniez’s acerbic, erudite, occasionally feral playing as she alternated between acoustic guitar, accordion and piano.

As a performer, Garniez is devastatingly funny, although her songs often pack a wallop that comes from the opposite end of the emotional spectrum. One of her favorite tropes is to introduce them via slow, contemplative, frequently psychedelic intros that give her a launching pad for deviousy surrealist, deadpan humor that seems completely fresh and off-the-cuff but is actually more thoroughly composed than anyone realizes. What varies from show to show is the punchlines: it’s impossible to think of anyone who has as much fun flying without a net as Garniez.

And there’s always something relevant lurking behind the jokes. What seemed like it would be blissed-out musings on deep-forest beauty turned in a split second into caustic commentary on global warming…which then introduced a sly, vamping, bluesy stripper theme. That one she played on accordion, accenting the song with some unexpected horror on the low end and then a coyly sinister flatline motif at the very end. Likewise, she painted a dreamy early morning riverside scenario and then flipped the script, tying it into the perils of gentrification. That led into the metaphorically slashing if gently waltzing Tourmaline, the semi-precious gem in the title a metaphor for all things not quite perfect, or accepted, embellished with Garniez’s usual umpteem levels of meaning. As Garniez tells it, anyone who might dis you for having something in common with that stone “Is only just snow on your screen.”

Playing piano, she made the connection between Facebook and crack cocaine (Garniez is equally disdainful of both) in the gospel-tinged God’s Little Acre, an unrepentant kiss-off from a former party animal who’s been tracked down (or stalked) by a fling from a past decade. And in a bouncy, blackly amusing new one, just bass and vocals, she explained that at her funeral, she doesn’t want any ordinary Cadillac hearse: she wants an El Camino instead. How many other songwriters would identify a funeral flower car by its make and model, never mind using that image as a metaphor?

Beyond an irresistibly funny, sarcastically operatic shout-out to Jean-Claude Van Damme and his  endorsements for antidepressants, the best song of the night was a starkly baroque-tinged new guitar song inspired by her European tourmate Kyrie Kristmanson. Yet again, Garniez filled in the details of what would seemingly turn out to be a comfortable, sympathetic portrait of an old lady and her tchotchkes…but revealed the source of the money funding all the decor as “The bludgeon and blade.”

And she is New York to the core. Feeding off the crowd’s energy, she wound up the set with People Like You, which opens as an uneasiy and ambiguous Far Rockaway reminiscence, then takes on a blithe, boppy Rickie Lee Jones bounce before Garniez drops the artifice and bares her fangs, in a withering sendup of gentrifier status-grubbing:

It’s people like you who don’t know pride from shame
It’s people like you who always stay one step ahead of the game
It’s people like you who never place a face before a name

Then she quoted from Taylor Swift and brought down the house.

Garniez is just as fearless when it comes to having special guests: other vocalists might be intimidated by sharing the stage with singer Carol Lipnik and her otherworldly, soaring four-octave range, but not her. Lipnik and pianist Matt Kanelos delivered plenty of thrills with a spellbinding, melismatic take of Oh, the Tyranny, a hauntingly awestruck track from their new album Almost Back to Normal. A little later, torchy chanteuse Angela McCluskey provided some plaintive intensity of her own in a Billie Holiday-inspired diptych, pianist Paul Cantelon providing brilliant, Debussy-esque ripples and lustre.

Garniez has a long-awaited new album due out on November 13; her next gig is at Barbes on Sept 3 at 8 PM. Lipnik continues her weekly Thursday 7 PM residency at Pangea this month. And McCluskey and Cantelon debut their new dancefloor groove band, Saint Bernadette – with Garniez on accordion – tonight, August 26 at City Winery at 7.

Carol Lipnik and Matt Kanelos Get Magically Surreal…With Some Help from Penny Arcade

“I’m the Singing Mermaid,” chanteuse Carol Lipnik explained with a chirpy wink in the intimate back room at Pangea Sunday night, before soaring skyward to the top of her stratospheric four-octave range. “I carry my heart in a specimen jar…from this open wound shoots a human cannonball.” Of course, all this carnival imagery – until recently, Lipnik’s signature style – is loaded with subtext. Lipnik demurred that this number, dating back to her first album about fifteen years ago, happens to be a favorite of Penny Arcade. And in keeping with Lipnik’s tradition of bringing up a special guest midway through the set here, her performance artist pal delivered a characteristically searing, funny monologue touching on gentrification and its discontents, among other pressing topics. And a couple of days later – at the kickoff party for an art exhibit curated by Anthony Haden-Guest – Arcade stunned the crowd with an excerpt from her incendiary new show, Longing Lasts Longer, a corrosively funny critique of luxury condo-era New York and death by cupcake that runs from July 13 through 15 at 8 PM at Theatre for the New City.

Since February, Lipnik and pianist Matt Kanelos’ weekly residency at Pangea on Second Avenue north of 11th Street has been honed to a tightly glimmering, mesmerizing sheen. It’s music to get lost in. Of all the many ongoing weekly gigs in this city, it’s impossible to think of a more happening one right now than this show. Lipnik and Kanelos have a camaraderie that borders on the telepathic, each following the other, always ready go to just a little outside the lines, blurring borders and shifting the time just enough to raise the disquiet factor to redline. And the music is more lush, and plaintive, and terse than anything Lipnik has done before.

On one hand, the residency, and the duo’s repertoire, draws heavily on their new album Almost Back to Normal, reinventing the concept of art song for this era. On the other, it’s awfully fun to see how the two have also reinvented a lot of Lipnik’s older Coney Island phantasmagoria, pushing that material further toward art-rock. They took the ghoulishly vaudevillian Freak House Blues deeper into the night, muting the ominously cartoonish ambience of the original, and gave a hypnotically swaying trip-hop groove to Moth, the plaintive title track from Lipnik’s 2008 album. And they encored with a raptly morbid version of The Two-Headed Calf, which was all the more creepy for its gentle sympathy for the freak watching the stars and seeing double. There were also two covers: the Talking Heads’ Heaven Is a Place as Laura Nyro might have done it, and a gleefully deadpan, utterly macabre version of the Twist that looked straight back to Klaus Nomi.

And the newest material – the broodingly intense individualist anthem Crow’s Nest; the pensively soul-inflected hedonist’s tale Honey Pot; and the album’s mystically William Blake-influenced title track, among other songs, maintained the studio versions’ surreal lustre. Lipnik and Kanelos have moved their residency to Thursdays at 7:30 PM for July and August, starting on July 9 with another first-class, sympatico special guest, charismatic accordionist-singer Rachelle Garniez. If state-of-the-art songcraft and magical voices are your thing, miss this at your peril. Years from now, people will be saying they were here even if they weren’t.

Two New York Chicks Play the Year’s Best Twinbill, Then Go Their Separate Ways

The best doublebill of the year so far was back on the 14th of the month at Joe’s Pub, when Rachelle Garniez and Carol Lipnik gave the crowd a lot to laugh about and plenty to get completely lost in. The distinctively “New York chicks,” as Garniez put it, each played a duo set, Garniez with bassist Tim Luntzel and Lipnik with pianist Matt Kanelos, but neither were the least bit low-key. Garniez grew up on the Upper West Side when it was much more of a Wild Wild West neighborhood – and that wasn’t so long ago. Lipnik’s childhood Coney Island is a rare New York hood to revert to that direction. Garniez rode waves of poignancy and irresisistibly sardonic humor; Lipnik set a mood of mysterious, otherworldly, luminous beauty early on and maintained that all the way through, save for a creepily hilarious goth-pop cover of The Twist, with a nod to Klaus Nomi. Both artists have shows coming up that no doubt will be just as good, Garniez at Barbes at 8 on June 4 and Lipnik at Pangea on Second Ave. between 11th and 12th Sts. at 7:30 on June 14 and continuing Sundays throughout the month.

Garniez opened the show: when she wasn’t segueing from one number to another, she eased her way in, improvising an intro, teasing the audience with a stream-of-consciousness rap that got the crowd howling even as she snuck in snide references to everything that plagues the East Village these days, from global warming to gentrification to antidepressants. For that matter, she could have been referencing just about anywhere. Her first number was Kid in the Candy Store, a coyly bluesy cabaret tune that she reinvented this time out as Marc Ribot-esque acoustic guitar skronk. Who knew?

She switched to accordion, strutting through the sultry Medicine Man and waltzing her way through the even more defiant, metaphorically bristling individualist anthem Tourmaline. Her new material worked on as many levels as you would expect from what has become, over the years, a deep and iconic repertoire. A skeletal, bluesy guitar number went in a more Waits direction, a defiant bon vivant’s look forward to her own fun funeral. The best song of the night was another new one, an understatedly chilling, apocalyptic Britfolk-tinged waltz that wouldn’t have been out of place in the Richard Thompson songbook. Then she went to the piano for some East Village gospel, then God’s Little Acre, a vicious slap upside the head of any would-be stalker trolling Facebook for a girl he had the hots for in a past century. She drew the most laughs of the night with her closing number, an appreciative faux-operatic faux-homage to opioids and Jean-Claude Van Damme.

Lipnik and Kanelos opened with a rippling, neo-baroque song about the oyster and the sand, as she told the crowd. With an awe-inspiring four-octave range that was as strong in the ominous lows as it was in the stratospheric, bone-chilling, sometimes playfully ticklish highs, she kept the crowd hushed except for a few comedic moments. Lipnik’s back catalog is actually a lot more diverse than this show let on – she’s an avatar of Coney Island phantasmagoria and circus rock. But this was the album release show for her new one, Almost Back to Normal, a metaphorically searing, lushly atmospheric art-rock cd that looks back to similar albums by Nico and Laura Nyro.

Kanelos kept the pedal down for a rippling resonance, his steady chords hitting on the beat as Lipnik mined the songs’ ominous subtext for all it was worth. Water imagery was everywhere.  Lipnik worked every corner of her magical voice, in command but not overstating it: vibrato, echo effects, droll operatics and skin-peeling swoops to places in the sky where there’s probably no air. She voiced her attempt to sonically translate a William Blake illuminated manuscript as creepy, incisive art-rock, then built to the album’s title track with a titanic, white-knuckle intensity as she reached for the rafters and held on for dear life.

An “anthem for crows” offered a resolute Occupy movement mantra for anyone who wanted to seize it.  Beyond that LMAO version of The Twist, there was also a Mexican/Weimar cabaret mashup, an echoey, angst-laden version of Harry Nilsson’s alienation anthem Lifeline, a galloping, rather macabre setting of a poem by dark 70s cult favorite and Allen Ginsberg pal Helen Adam and a showstopping, haunting apocalyptic anthem by Kanelos to close the night. Representing for the hometown team, Garniez and Lipnik didn’t throw their hats in the ring and offer a deathmatch challenge to any of the new arrivals from Malibu and Bloomfield Hills and Fort Worth, but the subtext and the final score was clear: New York 2, Suburbia 0.

A Surrealistically Spellbinding New Album from Spectacular Singer Carol Lipnik

Find someone who was part of the music scene on the Lower East Side in the late 90s and zeros, before it turned into a tourist trap, and ask them who the best singer in New York is. Chances are they’ll tell you it’s Carol Lipnik. These days she’s taken her spine-tingling four-octave range to classier places. And she has a new album, Almost Back to Normal just out and streaming online which stakes Lipnik’s claim to a place in the pantheon alongside such equally distinctive, individualistic song stylists as Nico, Diamanda Galas, Laura Nyro and maybe Bjork. Lipnik is playing the album release show this Thursday, May 14 at 7 PM at Joe’s Pub on what could be a transcendent twinbill with the similarly enigmatic, lyrically-fueled, wickedly charismatic accordionist/multi-instrumentalist Rachelle Garniez. Cover is $18 and advance tix are a good idea.

The cd cover perfectly capsulizes what the album’s about. Much as Lipnik can be playful and quirky, or channel a period-perfect 70s soul vibe, ultimately this is a harrowing record. The music is elegant, just piano, strings and vocals, sometimes stark, sometimes lush. Pianist Matt Kanelos – one of the foremost improvisers in town right now – alternates between spare, lingering phrases, stately baroque-tinged lines and eerie washes of resonance enhanced by the rich sonics of the Brooklyn jazz studio where he recorded them. Likewise, violinist and producer Jacob Lawson shifts seamlessly between graceful, dancing lines and windswept orchestration, a pillowy, sometimes opaque backdrop for Lipnik’s effortlessly crystalline leaps and cascades upward.

Lipnik is Coney Island born and raised and has a special fondness for water: ”Dreaming an ocean at twilight,” is the album’s opening line. That imagery reaches Dostoyevskian proportions: it’s everywhere, and the symbolism is subtly crushing. Allusions if not direct references to Hurricane Sandy and the BP Oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico echo in the shadow of the Fukushima nuclear meltdown. To say that this is an album for our time is an understatement to the extreme.

The opening track, Oh, the Tyrrany is a gentle, brooding waltz with an interlude that sounds like a theremin but is actually Lipnik’s voice: that’s how much command she has. By contrast, the second number, Honey Pot, is a joyously sexy, anthemic blue-eyed soul tribute to getting high. The title track has a wounded, minimalist insistence, Lipnik hitting some spectacular highs, but the feeling isn’t high camp, it’s genuine angst.

Crow’s Nest is a simple but impactful piece of defiant art-rock. Sonadora Dreamer contrasts a wickedly catchy chorus with both the wariness and lustre that define this album. The elegaic Lost Days and Songs is aptly titled, awash in tersely hypnotic, steadily rhythmic atmospherics that bring to mind Arvo Part. With its chromatically-charged menace, the album’s arguably strongest and most socially relevant track is The Things That Make You Grow: “The weeds get trampled on and the weak get trampled on, so put your antlers on,” Lipnik warns. Then she and Kanelos revert to a precisely soaring, Bach-like elegance with The Oyster and the Sand and its characteristically understated but adrenalizing vocal dynamics and pervasive sense of longing.

The first of the three covers here is Harry Nilsson’s Life Line, done much the same as the 70s pop hitmaker played it solo, exponentially raising the alienation and angst of the lyric. Aother is Lipnik’s own galloping, explosive setting of cult favorite poet Helen Adam’s existentialist theme Farewell, Stranger, a showcase for low-register pyrotechnics and soaring melismas.

The album’s most puckish (and slightly carnivalesque) track is Some People’s Souls: “Some people’s souls are full of holes, that’s how the rain gets in,” Lipnik explains. It ends, appropriately, with the moody ambience of a reinvented version of the old tin pan alley song Troubled Waters. Lipnik has put out some amazing albums in the past and has them streaming at her webpage: 2008’s Cloud Girl is a masterpiece of the Coney Island phantasmagoria she’s best known for. But this one is her best album – and as strong a contender for best of 2015 as has been released this year.

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.