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.