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The Best, Most Darkly Cinematic New York Show of 2016: Mamie Minch and Steve Ulrich at Barbes

The best show of 2016 in New York – at least the best one where this blog was in the house – was in mid-October at Barbes, where guitarists Mamie Minch and Steve Ulrich played a live score to silent films supplied by filmmaker Russell Scholl. And it was unquestionably the the year’s most cinematic, which makes sense considering both the context and the artists involved. Ulrich gets lots of work for film and for PBS, when he’s not fronting his slinky, Lynchian reverb guitar band, Big Lazy. Minch plays her own darkly individualistic, wit-infused take on classic country blues and Americana when she’s not running New York’s only woman-owned instrument repair store, Brooklyn Lutherie,. Both players have shows coming up. On Dec 6 at 6:30 PM, Minch is part of an excellent triplebill with fellow oldtime country blues purveyor Eli Smith and rustic 19th century style string band the Four O’Clock Flowers at the American Folk Art Museum, playing songs on the time-honored theme of death and mourning to coincide with the museum’s latest, wonderfully creeyp exhibition. Then she’s at Barbes at 8 on Dec 16. Ulrich is at Spectrum on Dec 10 at 7:30 PM with his Big Lazy bandmate, drummer Yuval Lion, where they’ll join Bob Dylan keyboardist Mick Rossi, Barbez‘s Peter Hess and Zion80‘s Jon Madof for a night of similarly creepy improvisation; cover is $15.

The night’s first movie at Barbes was a surrealistically nostalgic Coney Island tableau by Scholl, Minch singing a sad waltz that she’d originally written as a member of the badly missed oldtime harmony quartet the Roulette Sisters. Low and somber, she built a similarly moody Brooklyn oceanside scenario, the amusement park as a metaphor for passion that could go drastically wrong. It’s her Wall of Death.

Then Ulrich joined her for a brief set of his own shadowy film noir compositions while another Scholl pastiche – a defiantly individualistic, snidely anti-authoritarian work, like a Donald O’Finn mashup without the endless parodies of oversexed tv – flickered on the screen behind them. The two musicians have collaborated a lot over the past couple of years. Hearing Minch play Ulrich’s signature, menacing chromatics on her resonator guitar was a real treat, Ulrich supplying his usual macabre, resonant twang through a skeletally dancing number with hints of Romany jazz, then a morose graveyard stroll, Ulrich’s angst-fueled insistence against Minch’s steady, mournful chords. They wound it up with tricky syncopation and more rain-drenched chromatics that gave way to reflecting-pool psychedelia as the film hit a comedic coda.

Minch scored the night’s final film, Windsor McCay’s pioneering 1921 early animation flick The Flying House, chronicling the adventures of a man who motorizes his home and then takes it up into the clouds in order to escape the evil bankster who wants to foreclose on it. You want relevance? Minch switched slowly and masterfully from one oldtime blues tuning to another. interpolating those graceful blue notes into the score as she retuned, moving seamlessly through gemtly waltzing, pastoral passages, bouncily romping interludes, elements of psychedelic folk and 70s British art-rock, hardly styles that you would associate with someone regarded as one of this era’s great blueswomen. After the movie. the two treated the crowd to a cover of Johnny Cash’s Committed to Parkview – a Hollywood nuthouse if there ever was one – as well as a take of the Beatles hit Girl that really brought out all the menace in a femme fatale. They closed out the night with a solo Ulrich jazz tune and then Minch’s funereal rendition of the Bessie Smith murder ballad Sing Sing Blues. Only in New York, folks.

Big Lazy’s Don’t Cross Myrtle – Best Album of 2014

Film composer/guitarist Stephen Ulrich has been on some kind of roll lately. He scored the Academy Award-shortlisted documentary Art and Craft with characteristically vivid noir unease. His one-off album with his cinematic instrumental project Ulrich Ziegler, with ex-Pink Noise guitarist Itamar Ziegler, was rated best album of 2012 here. Most recently, Ulrich has regrouped his legendary noir instrumental trio Big Lazy, who set the bar as far as menacing reverbtone guitar cinematics are concerned. The title of their latest album, Don’t Cross Myrtle – streaming at Spotify – is a creepy deep-Brooklyn reference, and it’s apt. Pound for pound, it’s the best album of 2014.

Some backstory: the group broke up in 2007. Meanwhile, Ulrich continued on with a semi-rotating cast of characters including drummer Yuval Lion, who ended up sticking around for this project along with prominently ubiquitous bassist Andrew Hall, who’s never played with more stygian intensity than he does here. The new album covers all the desolate, shadowy, knifes-edge territory that previous incarnations of the band have evoked since their iconic 1996 debut, Amnesia, released under the name Lazy Boy (the reason for the name change is a sick and hilarious indictment of American corporate fascism). And this unit turns out to be the best version of the band, ever, surpassing even the slinky menace of Ulrich’s original trio with Paul Dugan on bass and Willie Martinez on drums.

The opening track, Minor Problem, is a a twisted tango, Ulrich tracing a sleaze-infested trail with his guitar and then his lapsteel over a misterioso clatter from Lion as Hall holds it all together. The slowly undulating Unswerving blends Charlie Giordano’s accordion into Ulrich’s spaciously eerie chromatics for a tinge of Peter Lorre-era musette. The Low Way opens as a jauntily swinging, Bill Frisell-esque highway theme, but Ulrich wastes no time edging it toward the shadows: it’s sort of the reverse image of Junction City, the one relatively easygoing track on the band’s debut.

Human Sacrifice makes horror surf out of a flamenco theme – with its savage clusters and sudden dips and swells, it’s one of the most suspenseful tracks here, and a real showstopper live. Black Sheep brings back the pastoral flavor with a muted, psychedelic sarcasm – Lion’s snorting barnyard flurries on the drums are irresistibly funny. Avenue X – another Brooklyn reference and a popular title in the horror surf demimonde – revisits the murky, dubby depths that Ulrich explored for awhile about ten years ago, with a snide, faux-blithe trumpet cameo from Sexmob‘s Steven Bernstein.

Night Must Fall motors along on an ominously sketchy ghoulabilly shuffle groove in the same vein as classic late 90s Big Lazy tracks like Princess Nicotine and Just Plain Scared, hitting a similarly explosive, jagged peak. The single best cut here is the funereal waltz Swampesque, Lion and Hall shadowing Ulrich’s alternately lingering and icepicking lines. Bring Me the Head of Lee Marvin pairs crime-scene guitar with guest Peter Hess’s brooding baritone sax over an almost imperceptibly shapeshifting groove.

The album’s title track is also its funniest, a ba-BUMP stripper theme that the band, and Bernstein again, fire poison darts at with considerable relish. Whereabouts takes a balmy jazz ballad deep into Twin Peaks territory; the album winds up with a bonus track, Lunch Lady, a narrative that turns on a dime from bouncy and bluesy to murderous. Throughout the album, Ulrich and the rhythm section pepper the shadowy cinematics with bits of black humor and the occasional devious quote – Hendrix, the Mission Impossible theme and allusions to Nino Rota’s Fellini soundtracks, a well that Ulrich has drawn deeply from over the years. Obviously, picking this album over similarly brilliant if stylistically unrelated releases by Jennifer Niceley, Robin Aigner, Paul Wallfisch’s Ministry of Wolves and Arborea (all of whom you may see on this page in the near future, hint hint) is completely subjective. It’s like choosing Sergeant Pepper over Are You Experienced in 1967, or Public Enemy over Sonic Youth in 1987. If you buy the idea that somebody has to make that call, this album makes it a no-brainer.