New York Music Daily

Love's the Only Engine of Survival

Tag: molly white violin

A Characteristically Creepy New Album From the Great Kotorino

You could make a very strong case that Kotorino are the best New York band of the last ten years. Combining circus rock and latin noir, with frequent detours into gothic Americana, their sound grew more lavishly orchestrated as the group expanded. Their new album Sea Monster, streaming at Bandcamp, brings the band full circle to their earliest years in quietly uneasy parlor rock, a vehicle for frontman/guitarist Jeff Morris’ allusively grim narratives. Kotorino don’t have any shows coming up, but Charming Disaster – Morris and singer/uke player Ellia Bisker’s devilish murder ballad side project – are playing Pine Box Rock Shop this Friday night, Feb 16 at 11:30 PM.

“Like a broken calculator, they tried, and tried, but never got her number,” Morris and Bisker harmonize over an unexpectedly funky strut as the new album’s opening track, Hell Yeah, gets underway. The horn section kicks in, then there’s one of the misterioso interludes the band love so much. As usual, there are as many levels of meaning here, a sideways shout-out to an enterprising girl in the 21st century Manhattan gig economy:

Downtown to the tarpits
Where the hedge funds employ mystics
She said it’s been real in the abstract,
But I want to break out of this contract

Now That I’m Dead, a slowly swaying, crescendoing soul ballad, is next. The glockenspiel against Morris’ grittily clanging old Gibson hollowbody is a typical, neat Kotorino touch. The band shift between a muted, suspenseful pulse and bright, horn-spiced flair in the increasingly ominous travelogue Daddy’s on the Road: all those doppler effects are irresistibly fun.

Rags to Riches is classic Kotorino, a creepy circus waltz: without spoiling the plot, the theme is be careful what you wish for. Likewise, Breakdown has a darkly jaunty, brassy oldtimey swing: it’s part escape anthem, part dayjob hell story.

Too Bad (You Haven’t Eyes Like Us Owls) is the album’s most haunting track, a brooding noir mambo ablaze with brass, pouncing along on the slashes from Morris’ guitar, with a succession of surreal vocal cameos from the women in the band (who also comprise violinists Molly White and Estelle Bajou, tuba players Jeanie Schroder and Liz Prince, and singing saw player Caroline Ritson).

Patricia Santos’ mournful cello infuses the brooding, metaphorically charged waltz Planes Land:

The higher you go
The thinner the air
Head in the clouds
Spoils the view

Right Way Wrong has an emphatically jagged latin soul groove that rises to a moodily lush chorus, an allusively imagistic criminals-on-the-run tale with a cynically gruff Stefan Zeniuk bass sax solo. Fall Asleep But Don’t Let Me Go isn’t the only shipwreck tale Morris has written, but it’s the gloomiest, rising out of hazy ambience to a towering, 6/8 sway and then back, with an absolutely delicious contrapuntal vocal arrangement.

The title cut closes the album, Mike Brown;s chugging quasi-ska bassline giving way to a surreal, tropically psychedelic interlude with coy allusions to the Beatles and maybe the Boomtown Rats. Name another band alive who can do all this and a lot more in the span of just this many songs, You’ll see this here on the best albums of 2018 page at the end of the year.

Kotorino Turns Joe’s Pub Into a Dark Carnival

Right now Brooklyn’s Kotorino are as exciting as any other creepy, carnivalesque band in the world. Having seen Mucca Pazza, Rosin Coven, Rasputina and several others in that vein over the past few months, Kotorino are as lush and menacing as any of them – and they just keep growing. Earlier this evening at Joe’s Pub there were eight other musicians alongside frontman/guitarist Jeff Morris, whose brooding, rakish persona and disquietingly surreal narratives were fleshed out with majestic four-part harmonies, ominous noir vamps and tensely mysterious interludes punctuated by unexpected leaps and dives from throughout the band. This time out, immediately to Morris’ right on ukulele and percussion was Elia Bisker, who plays his dangerously torchy foil in the considerably quieter but equally menacing duo Charming Disaster. Among the rest of the players in the three-piece string section, horns, rhythm section and singing saw were violinist Molly White, bassist Mike Brown, drummer Jerome Morris (Jeff’s jazzy brother), trumpeter Jesse Selengut and low-register reedman Stefan Zeniuk (of psycho mambo band Gato Loco).

Morris’ songs range from noir cabaret to chamber pop and circus rock, with frequent latin and Romany influences. As the band has gotten bigger, the sound has grown louder. They opened the show with a noir mambo and ended with a tango about suicide. In between, they varied their dynamics, throughly rich arrangements with spine-tingling harmonies from the women and one trick ending after another. They began the surreal, probably symbolically loaded hot-air balloon epic Oh My God with a balmy but foreboding lushness, rising to an understated angst fueled by a simmering salsa groove. The next song was a dark cabaret narrative told from the point of view of a guy imagining all the fun he’s going to have after he springs his girlfriend out of the loony bin

A similarly shadowy, worrisome waltz was written for a Fringe Festival show, Morris explained – which says a lot about where these songs come from. This one ostensibly told the story of a cop, “a man in a long black car.” The one before that reminded of fellow Brooklyn art-rockers the Snow with its pulsing minor-key, chromatically bristling tune and its story about a girl who made some kind of promise before falling asleep – or something like sleep – on the kitchen floor. Bisker duetted with Morris on a torchy, jaunty but pensive oldtime swing-tinged song lit up by more of those gorgeous vocal harmonies and a similarly torchy Selengut solo. Then Morris switched to the piano for a brooding number that bookended a graceful art-rock anthem with a nebulously morose, lingering intro and outro.

“What is this mess that we call love?” the women sang on another jaunty swing number, like the Moonlighters on steroids – it was the most carnivalesque number of the night. The night’s most lavish, epic number was Williamsburg Suits, which could be a subtle, musically retro attack on fashion trends or gentrification, or both. Morris and Bisker played it four-handed on piano, Zeniuk’s bass sax and the trumpet trading incisive riffage, down to a long, shimmery, misterioso interlude and finally out with a distantly clanging, tone-bending menace (how many times has the word “menace” appeared here? If nothing else, that explains this band). If you wish you’d caught this concert, Kotorino are playing the album release show for their highly anticipated new one on Sept 27 at around 9:30 at the Cameo Gallery with Gato Loco – who can be just as dark and entertaining – opening at around 8:30.

Kotorino Stuns the Crowd at Joe’s Pub

At any given time, there are always about two dozen New York rock bands who could be the best in town, and Kotorino are definitely among the current crop. Friday night at Joe’s Pub, Kotorino reminded that out of all those bands, they’re by far the most original and probably the most interesting. They didn’t do their trademark switching off on instruments – the drummer emerging from behind the kit to take a turn on harmonium, for example – leaving only frontman Jeff Morris to alternate between guitar and piano. Debonair and intense in front of the band, he scooched from side to side as he sang with an unaffected but apprehensive delivery that frequently threatened to reach to the level of a scream but never quite went there. That pervasive angst matched to an equally vivid joie de vivre perfectly capsulizes the appeal of this band, part gypsy rock, part noir cabaret, part chamber pop. This was the eight-piece version of the group, with Morris backed by two violins, trumpet, multi-reeds (baritone and tenor sax plus bass clarinet), tuba and bass for extra slinky low-register fatness, and drums.

The most amazing moment of the night, and there were plenty of those, was when the two women in the band put down their violins and joined Morris at the piano, singing eerily swooping, microtonal close harmonies that added a surreal gypsy-tinged menace to the song’s bittersweet psychedelics. “It won’t get better than this,” Morris intoned, making it clear that he meant that in every possible sense. At the end, Jesse Selengut – who was a one-man crescendo army on trumpet, all night long – exchanged bars with Stefan Zeniuk’s bass clarinet until the whole band took the song up and out with an emphatic, ominous stomp. The band opened with what was essentially a dark garage rock number in 7/8 time that wouldn’t have been out of place in the Botanica catalog: “I never had a chance to work it out, never had a chance,” Morris lamented. They followed that Oh My God, a lush steampunk anthem about sailing away in a balloon from their most recent album Broken Land, equal parts exhilaration and dread as the band built to a brief, frantic doublespeed interlude and then reverted gracefully to a distantly majestic sway.

With the harmonies between Morris and violinist Molly White – whose torchy allure made a potent contrast with his pensive, contemplative style – many of the songs evoked fellow Brooklyn art-rockers the Snow. False endings and sudden tempo changes abounded. A couple of the songs kicked off with a reggae beat and then built warily and methodically from there; the creepiest one of the night, at least musically, was a piano waltz with abrasive muted trumpet, a suspensefully atonal, swirlingly atmospheric interlude where Selengut got the chance to unleash his inner elephant and then a big, roaring outro.

It took nerve to close the set with a suicide song, Dangle Tango, but that’s what they did, lighting it up with uneasy clarinet trills and chillingly gleeful la-la harmonies as it built to a towering, manic-depressive sway that finally exploded at the end. As the audience did, seconds afterward, obviously stunned by this band’s unpredictable power. They screamed for an encore and got a rousing but uneasy singalong; they wanted another, but by now it was almost one in the morning and the club staff all looked ready for bed.

Kotorino’s Broken Land – One of This Past Year’s Best Albums

Brooklyn band Kotorino play darkly elegant, trippy, gypsy-flavored “parlor rock” with carnivalesque touches. It’s astonishing that their most recent album Broken Land hasn’t gotten more press than it has: there’s a huge audience out there who will love this record (this blog didn’t yet exist when it came out about a year ago). There are other bands who work the same territory – Oregon gypsy band Fishtank Ensemble, in their quieter moments, or fellow Brooklyn chamber-rock band the Snow – but Kotorino’s sound is unique. Often their lead instrument is Stefan Zeniuk’s clarinet or bass clarinet, other times it’s a singing saw. Frontman Jeff Morris’ guitar gives some of the songs a slinky tango vibe; then he’ll play with a slide, adding a rustic, nocturnal, bluesy edge, or switch to pump organ. Onstage, the band members all switch and play each others’ instruments, adding a level of mystery here as to who’s playing what – drummer Jerome Morris on guitar? Could be. Harmony singer Amy Morris and violinist Molly White add to the lush, low-key ambience, joining voices conspiratorially over accordionist Nicki Pfoutz’s plaintive chords.

The album kicks off with a tango vibe enhanced by White’s stark violin accents and a nicely layered horn arrangement. The second track, Little Boat goes for an understated unease which bobs to the surface again and again throughout the album. It’s a metaphorically-loaded escape anthem: “Sitting there with my myserious frown, Mona Lisa turned upside down,” explains Jeff Morris as his craft loses sight of shore, a torchy chromatic harp solo raising the apprehension another notch. Under the Moon sounds like the Snow playing dub reggae; the next track, Hawaii, drenched in dreamy steel guitars, could be El Radio Fantastique covering the Moonlighters. It’s a shipwreck survivor’s tale, with what seems to be an unexpectedly happy ending.

The best song on the album is Sky’s on Fire, an ominous banjo tune with a casually chilling violin solo that underscores its narrator’s madness: “From a butterfly to a hurricane, there’s a sky in my eye, it’s on fire,” Jeff Morris intones quietly. They go back to reggae – and a surreal, woozy carousel interlude – with Paris Underground, then Dangle Tango builds a series of suspenseful crescendos around a would-be suicide’s tale:

Angels are circling my head
Flying sweetly round and round
I feel like old King Kong
As I try to knock them down

The slow, singing saw sway of Oh My God – a metaphorical tale of flying off in a balloon – is irresistibly romantic. They close the album with the title track, a bluesy 6/8 steampunk anthem for a bucolic Brooklyn of the mind in some alternate future. Kotorino choose their gigs wisely: watch this space for upcoming live dates.