New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: music review

Cello Rockers the Icebergs Take Their Dark, Distinctive Sound to the Next Level

It’s always validating to see a good band grow into a great one. Over the last few years, the Icebergs have distinguished themselves from the other acts in the cello-rock demimonde by way of Tom Abbs’ deep well of sounds, beyond that instrument’s usual sonic range, along with frontwoman/lyricist Jane LeCroy’s black humor and often searing metaphors.  O’Death drummer David Rogers-Berry completes the picture with his nimble, counterintuitive, coloristic style. On their new album Add Vice – streaming at Bandcamp – they take their dark, aphoristic, individualistic style to the next level: it’s one of the best records of the year. 

It opens with Fallen Creature, an escape anthem of sorts and the catchiest song the band have ever done. Abbs runs a Brubeck-esque riff over Rogers-Berry’s’s lithely tumbling drums, LeCroy contributing a typically telling lyric: “I am a fallen creature who knows my away around the grounds,,,I know silken threads, the stickiness of woven webs.”

The second track, Chelsea – a brief party scenario –  is a witchy one-chord jam as Lorraine Leckie might do it, with snarling guitar and organ, Abbs playing basslines behind guest Martin Philadelphy’s reverb guitar. Invictus keeps the menacing 60s ambience going; this could be Rasputina covering X. “Your days are numbered, so make them count,” LeCroy advises amidst the swirl.

Willa is a slow, death-obsessed ballad, Abbs’ stark upper-register lines subtly iced with reverb. The menace continues with the defiant, starkly bluesy Made It Rain  a trip-hop take on vintage Nina Simone.

The slinky Full Fathom 5 Ariel’s Song – a Shakespeare setting – has  ghostly call-and-response over funeral organ and the cello’s layers of distorted guitar voicings. They pick up the pace with the sarcastically blithe faux cha-cha Same Symptoms, then return to sinister mode with The Way They Wanted, a chillingly imagistic anti-conformist broadside. “The closer to truth, the bigger the joke,” LeCroy warns.

Motorcycle could be a brooding RZA Wu-Tang backing track as produced by Lee “Scratch” Perry. Bow Spirit is a brisk minor-key shuffle with similar dubwise tinges. The band follow that with Ocean Liner, a gleefully Halloweenish garage rock number (and an obvious choice for a band named the Icebergs).

Pareidolia has a slow, staggered sway behind LeCroy’s accusatory vocals. “What are you using to rip out your eyes so you don’t have to look?” she asks over a staggered, skeletal groove and Abbs’ pickslide slashes in the album’s title track – what an apt song for the year of the plandemic and the lockdown!

The tightly waltzing Little Lamb could be a parody of helicopter parenting, or about something even more troubling. The band wind up this hauntingly expansive album with A Line, LeCroy’s wry litany of metaphors reflecting her long background in the poetry underground. “Get out of line – a line is to cross,” she reminds. Powerful words for a year that may determine the fate of the earth. 

Searing, Fuzzy Doom Metal From Swedish Band Lowrider

Swedish band Lowrider do not play Los Angeleno funk. Hard-riffing stoner metal in a Kyuss/Sleep vein is more their thing. Their album Refractions is streaming at Bandcamp. Strong hum-along hooks and interesting psychedelic textures pervade this – they’re a rare metal band who don’t waste notes.

The first track, Red River has a fat fuzztone riffage from the band’s two guitarists – frontman Ola Hellquist on lead and Niclas Stalfors on rhythm – over drummer Andreas Eriksson’s ba-bump beat, tantalizingly brief wah-wah guitar and a weird, echoey bridge. They do the ba-bump thing a little more artfully in Ode to Ganymede – the funeral-parlor organ, atmospherics and a wry guitar solo that sounds like a talkbox but is probably just Hellquist fiddling with his wah are unexpected touches amid the crunch and sludge.

In the hypnotic, almost nine-minute Semanders Krog, the band shift in and out of a tricky beat, indulge in some minimalist atmospherics and finally rise to a long, sputtering trails of sparks from Hellquist’s wah-wah. Mule Pepe is just as trippy but a lot more straightforward, beatwise and riffwise; finally, three tracks in, we get a few seconds of solo bass and drums, and a classic devil’s-horns salute for an outro.

The instrumental Sun Devil is based around a simple, classic series of variations playing off a low E; Peder Bergstrand’s bass is tuned a whole octave lower. The closing epic, Pipe Rider, has growling guitars in tandem with the organ and unexpectely new wave-tinged synth over Eriksson’s shamanistic drums. On one hand, this sound has been done to death over the years – because every year, another generation of alienated kids discover Black Sabbath and the thousands of bands they influenced. Long may they play this stuff.

Going Through Hell with One of the World’s Greatest Jazz Orchestras

What could be more appropriate for this year than an album about a trip through hell?

When the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis recorded their live performance of alto saxophonist Sherman Irby’s Inferno in 2012, it’s unlikely that anyone in the world had any idea how much we would suffer eight years later at the hands of the lockdowners. Nor is it likely that the big band were even considering releasing this show as an album. But when it’s illegal to have your whole band in the same room, you do what any reasonable organization with a massive archive would do: you put out one great live record after another to keep your fans satisfied (and remind the rest of the world that a free society will someday flourish again in this city). This brings the orchestra’s releases this year to a grand total of four, and there may be more on the way.

Irby’s Dante-inspired suite features crowd favorite baritone saxophonist Joe Temperley playing the devil role, an assignment he obviously if rather subtly relishes when his turn comes.

A brief overture has slurry low brass, train-whistle high reeds and flickers of hi-de-ho swing, Temperley taking everybody way down into the depths. The first movement is titled House of Unbelievers, its brassy strut quickly giving way to suave, plush swing with good-natured solos from flute, soprano sax and trombone: it’s anything but hellish. But the atmosphere heats up in the simmmering second movement, Insatiable Hunger, a slow, slinky minor-key roadhouse theme of sorts: is that a piccolo descending from the clouds and hovering overhead like a drone? Shivery trombone offers a demonic response and kicks off the ensuing chatter.

Temperley’s allusively menacing solo follows that gremlin conversation as Beware the Wolf gets underway, echoed by smoky tenor sax, evilly slurry trombone and wicked, downwardly spiraling trumpet over a practically frantic swing. The album’s showstopper is The City of Dis, a slow, creepy, kaleidoscopically arranged Ravel Bolero-inspired number worthy of Gil Evans, packed with sly carnivalesque touches. It’s one of the most entertaining pieces of music released this year.

The Three-Headed Serpent is just about as colorful, a racewalking swing tune with bits of stern 19th century gospel, lowrider funk and solos from drums to tenor sax to piano popping up all over the place. The fierce trumpet duel at the center really energizes a crowd who up to this point have been pretty sedate.

The album’s epic final movement is The Great Deceiver, a synopsis of sorts that wraps up the brooding bolero theme and pretty much everything else, the devil himself slowly stalking in on the pulse of the bass as his minions chatter away. He slinks off amid an Ellingtonian lustre at the end. Irby is best known as a fearsome soloist, but these compositions are flat-out brilliant: let’s hope we get more like this out of him in the years to come. This is best-of-2020 material.

Lush, Elegant, Moodily Orchestrated Chamber Pop from Chanteuse Z Berg

Press releases usually can’t be trusted, especially when it comes to music. The one that came with the new album Get Z to a Nunnery, by a singer who goes by the name of Z Berg characterized the record as “a little bit Francoise Hardy…a little bit Dusty Springfield on drugs..” Intriguing, no? It’s streaming at Bandcamp – see for yourself.

While Berg’s lavishly orchestrated songs are totally retro 60s, her voice is very much in the here and now. There’s a big crack in it when she reaches for a crescendo, Amy Winehouse-style. In quieter moments, her mutedly husky musings bring to mind Americana chanteuses like Tift Merritt. And either the album cost a fortune to produce, or Berg has lots of conservatory-trained friends (or dad still has something left from the old days at the formerly big record label). Sweeping orchestration and classically-tinged piano pervade her moody narratives, full of artful chord changes, dynamic shifts and picturesque imagery. It’s more valium and vodka than Prozac.

The opening ballad, To Forget You sets the stage, floating along over lush strings and a gracefully swaying 6/8 rhythm. The theme of I Fall For the Same Face Every Time is that troubled birds of a feather flock together, set to elegantly arpeggiated piano and baroque harp cascades.

“We didn’t fear the things we did not know,” Berg asserts in another 6/8 number, Time Flies, a pretty generic pop song heavily camouflaged in layers of backward-masked guitar and symphonic gloss. She shifts to a straight-up waltz tempo for Into the Night, a more delicate number that could be Charming Disaster on opium.

A gentle foreboding pervades Calm Before the Storm, the gently fingerpicked guitar, 70s Nashville pop melody and Berg’s plainspoken lyrics bringing to mind Jenifer Jackson in Americana mode. Little Colonel is one of the more skeletal and haunting tracks here, rising to a low-key baroque pop arrangement:

Dear little colonel, one foot in the grave
Fighting the war with an unsteady aim
Is that the goal, to create a crusade
With nothing for no one, so no one is saved
Or safe

It was recorded before the lockdown, but it’s uncanny all the same.

Berg and I (that’s the title) is a doomed noir cabaret number gliding along with mutedly insistent piano, strings and backward masking. Charades, a duet, is more sardonic and ELO-ish, the piano receding behind fingerpicked guitar. “It was a scream when were young and dumb, acid on Topanga Beach, in my mind we’ll always be that free,” Berg recalls in The Bad List, an anguished holiday nightmare breakup scenario: it’s the album’s Fairytale of New York. There’s also a starry instrumental epilogue. This is a sleeper candidate for the shortlist of the best albums of 2020.

Stark, Simmering Americana Nocturnes from Clara Baker

Fire is a recurrent metaphor on Americana songstress Clara Baker‘s new album Things to Burn, streaming at Bandcamp. But it’s not a fullscale inferno: it’s more of a brush fire that won’t flame out. Baker is the rare singer whose unselfconscious, nuanced delivery, with just a tinge of vibrato at the end of a phrase, can bring to mind Erica Smith. The album’s production is similarly understated and tasteful, matching the persistent unease, and distant longing, and low-key sultriness of the vocals.

The echoey Rhodes piano and Baker’s sotto-voce delivery on the album’s title track make it easy to believe that this song is about seduction…and it is, but the sarcasm is subtle, and withering, underscored by the sudden bursts from Courtney Hartman’s noisy electric guitar.

The ambiece is more skeletal, set to a circular mandolin riff in the minor-key Appachian-tinged second track, Doubt:

My mama brought me up with fate, my daddy brought me up with facts
I wanna pray at the altar of the certainty I lack

Baker maintains the sparse atmosphere in A Memory, a brooding tale of abandonment: “Strong as I am, I could never compete with a memory,” she muses.

Baker’s use of space is masterful: the occasionsl washes of slide guitar, or a reverberating accent from the Rhodes, pepper the slow waltz More Than Enough, a classic 70s-style Nashville ballad with minimalist production values.

Middle of the Night begins ambiently and then hits a sleepless trip-hop beat: it’s the album’s poppiest song. Six Days of Rain is the album’s killer cut, a slowly crescendoing, calmly harrowing account of getting dumped after what must have been a tortuous relationship.

I Won’t Take My Time is more hopeful, an oldtime front porch-style tune at halfspeed with probably a tenth the usual amount of strumming. Moving On is not the Hank Snow classic but a pensive, metaphorically-charged, backbeat-driven acoustic rock tune: “I’m grasping at the edges of who I was before I changed,” Baker muses. She closes the album with the gorgeously subdued Old Mountains, which evokes acoustic Pink Floyd, references a BeeGees song and has one of Baker’s most potent lyrics:

In a moment of bliss
Do you panic
Knowing something this good
Could never last…
Are you mining for joy
In old mountains
Are you panning for gold
In rivers of the past
I’ve walked that road
It hurts like hell
Letting go
Is something I know well

Impactful stuff from a quietly powerful voice.

Obscure Heavy Psychedelia Rescued From Vietnam War-Era Obscurity – For the Tenth Time

The great thing about the Brown Acid compilations is that there are a ton of unbelievable rare treasures amid the obscure singles by marginally talented bands who did their best to imitate Cream, Led Zep, the MC5 or Uriah Heep. Yet while pretty much all these bands rescured from obscurity over the course of the series’ ten volumes sound high on one thing or another, ultimately they have one thing in common: they embraced freedom.

All but one of the songs on the new anthology Brown Acid: The Tenth Trip – streaming at Riding Easy Records – were made in the US during the Vietnam War. The privileged kids whose parents could afford to put them through college to escape the draft weren’t making music that sounded much like this. Acid rock was a working-class subculture, created by musicians who were in danger of being drafted into a war that virtually all of them opposed. There’s only one overtly political song on this record, but let’s not forget that songs which openly endorsed drug use identifed their makers as subversive. This music was more radical than most people today realize.

The first track, Tensions, is by Flint, Michigan band Sounds Synonymous. With slinky organ and fuzztone guitar, it’s basically a one-chord jam  til the chorus. The haphazard doublespeed outro is a classic 1969 stoner touch.

Instead of accelerating, Louisville’s Conception follow a similar pattern with their 1969 single Babylon, with cheap amps, a phaser and a slow blues jam that appears out of nowhere. California band Ralph Williams and the Wright Brothers’ Never Again is a hard blues recorded in mono – three years later.

Atlanta band Bitter Creek’s 1970 recording Plastic Thunder has MC5 snarl and ominous lyrics that reflect the turbulence of the era: it’s one of the album’s best songs. New Orleans group Rubber Memory’s All Together – a ramshackle Vietnam War plea for solidarity – is one of the longscale gems these anthologies are best know for, slinking along with fuzztone bass, wah-wah scratch guitar, and a bridge from nowhere to basically nowhere as well.

First State Bank put out the impressively multitracked, scampering riff-rocker Mr. Sun in that same year. The album’s lone novelty song, Brothers and One’s Hard On Me is a pretty obvious dirty joke (say the title slowly and you’ll get it).

Tucson’s Frozen Sun contribute a Hendrix ripoff with super-spacy lyrics, followed by the album’s most hilarious song, The Roach, a 1969 stoner classic by Alabama band the Brood. “Leave him around for when you begin to come down,” their singer rasps over wahs and organ and a weird white noise loop: is that supposed to be somebody toking hard?.

The album’s final cut is Tabernash’s Head Collect, a surreal 1969 mashup of the Beatles and mid-60s Pretty Things.

It’s unthinkable that any of the bands in the ten-album series could have made this music while wearing masks and standing six feet from each other. Folks, this lockdown bullshit is never going to end unless we put an end to it. It’s time to mobilize.

A Haunting New Album From the Perennially Relevant Meredith Monk

“We know these things because some of their ancient ones are still among us,” Michael Cerveris’ space alien character intones midway through the third track on Meredith Monk’s new album Memory Game.

Is it any wonder why the lockdowners are trying to kill off all the old people? After all, they remember what it was like not to be spied on, and tracked, or glued to a screen. If the rest of us have no memory of freedom, can we even aspire to it?

That track, Migration, was first performed at the end of the Reagan years, the era that spawned the “culture wars” ignited by that administration’s most florid extremists. In the years since, Monk has never wavered from her signature playful, questioning stance. And now this icon of the avant garde has a new album, Memory Game – streaming at Bandcamp – with members of her vocal ensemble bolstered by the Bang on a Can All-Stars. It’s a mix of previously unrecorded material from her dystopic opera The Games plus plus new arrangements of earlier Monk works dating back to the 80s. There are both instrumentals and vocal numbers here. On the surface, it’s trippy and playful, with a quirky sense of humor and all kinds of demands on the vocalists’ extended technique. But there’s a frequent undercurrent of unease.

The opening instrumental, Spaceship is a circling theme with bright clarinet, stark violin, starry keyboards and unprocessed, trebly electric guitar over a steady rhythm. It’s a potent reminder of how vast Monk’s influence has been on successive generations of minimalists, not to mention a substantial percentage of the indie classical demimonde.

Bleckmann has fun swooping over Monk’s blippy, warptoned, insistent electric piano in The Gamemaster’s Song, bolstered by spare guitar and bass. The other singers – Katie Geissinger and Allison Sniffin – enter over a creepy music box-like backdrop in Memory Song. The animal allusions are prime Monk, as is the litany of references to everything this civilization lost.

With its macabre synth cascades and Planet of the Apes vocals, Downfall is aptly titled. The similarly sardonic Waltz in 5s has echoey violin, stately circling piano and operatically-tinged vocalese. Tokyo Cha-Cha is a loopy faux-salsa throwback to Monk’s earlier, more carefree work. It’s more Asian than latin, until Ken Thomson’s gruff baritone sax enters the picture.

The best of the instrumentals is Totentanz, a blithely menacing, marionettish theme with gracefully leaping clarinet, piano and grimly insistent percussion. The group return to a closer approximation of salsa to close the album on a jaunty note with Double Fiesta. This coouldn’t have been released at a more appropriate time.

Meet Some People in a Legendary Brooklyn Graveyard This Month with Singer Gelsey Bell

Gelsey Bell devised her new album Cairns as a headphone-enhanced walking tour of Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, and much of it was recorded there. As fans of the space are aware, it is a working cemetery, and it’s open daily from 7 AM to 7 PM. In order to help get people off their screens and back into the outdoors this summer, she includes a map along with the album – a collaboration with composer Joseph White – streaming at Bandcamp.

Bell recommends that people who want to take the tour should download the album, since phone reception deep in the cemetery gets iffy. “It can also be experienced at home, letting the field recordings made at Green-Wood transport you there. Or you can get really weird with it and just listen walking in a totally different environment,” Bell explains. It’s meant to be an immersive experience, with helpful cues and some music too. “Let’s see if you can keep pace with me,” Bell says with a smile.

The music includes a soaring, Renaissance-influenced electroacoustic chorale, gentle accents that could be harp and bells, and lightly pulsing ambience. Bell is a friendly guide, full of historical insights and unselfconsciously poetic observations. You might not expect someone who can be such a force of nature onstage to speak as quietly as she does, with a break in her low register.

On this particular walk, she’s carrying a stone which she’s going to add to a cairn in the cemetery. There’s birdsong, sounds of wind, fragments of conversation and a vehicle or two. The first of a handful of permanent residents you will visit is an American Indian woman whose name, translated into English, means “Productive Pumpkin,” and who died while working while working for P.T. Barnum.

The others you will meet – in one way or another – include the guy who booked the Beatles into Shea Stadium; the feminist scientist who in the 1850s discovered the link between carbon dioxide emissions and global warming; a pair of women who lived beyond the century mark; and Jean-Michel Basquiat. Bell also loves trees: you will encounter several, and learn a lot about them as well.

She also doesn’t shy away from the many grim political realities associated with those who reside along the way. This is definitely a People’s History of the cemetery. And in the spirit of Pauline Oliveros, Bell suggests midway through the tour that everybody should take a five-minute break, without headphones, to listen to the musical quality of the surrounding nature.

The Psychedelic Furs’ New Album: As Dark and Witheringly Relevant As Ever

The Psychedelic Furs have a new album. It’s really good!

Let’s be clear, this isn’t the same band who channeled horrorstricken, Joy Division-class angst with their densely atmospheric 1989 classic Book of Days – or whose guitar/organ/alto sax-fueled post-Velvets stomp had established them as one of that decade’s most important bands several years earlier. The sound of this record is closer to the former than the latter, with an even techier, postrock feel in places. Among core members from the group’s classic period, only frontman Richard Butler and keyboardist Joe McGinty remain. Butler, however, is in strong voice, and writing with the same withering punk sarcasm and bleak imagery that informed his best work. And the replacements – Richard Fortus, Jon Carin and someone who goes only by “BT” (could that be another founding member, Butler’s bassist brother Tim?) – share a commitment to the murk.

The album is titled Made of Rain; it’s streaming at Spotify. The first track, The Boy Who Invented Rock & Roll seems to be an Elvis parable, awash in vastly pulsing atmospherics and all kinds of guitar effects, Butler’s baritone a savage rasp overhead:

The druggy days the pointless pain
My glitter hips this bloodless ass
The endless days the starless dark
A bag of tears where love is gone
Her darling pays, a siren song…
The breathless air, the frozen tide
The greenless spring, the timeless night
The suicidal drunken dance
The sense that things will fall apart

In the wordless, echoey outro, the distantly reverberating flutter of a sax, and the snap and crackle of the bass rise up through the swirl.

You’ll Be Mine follows the same architecture: long, trancey verse and a big turnaround on the chorus. Butler works variations on a sarcastic “don’t be surprised” theme – this isn’t about seduction. He pushes his voice beyond where he really ought to (then again, he always did that) in the more upbeat, catchy, distinctly new wave-flavored Wrong Train. This song’s a typically imagistic narrative about a missed connection, in both senses of the word. Drugs and their dark side are a recurrent theme here.

This’ll Never Be Like Love has a slower, dreamlike sway: throughout the album, the soprano sax is a tasty, tasteful textural contrast. The band return to rainy-day washes of sound with the somber, wee-hours resignation of Ash Wednesday. Then they pick up the pace with the junkie cynicism of Don’t Believe, layers of icy chorus-box guitars filtering through the mix.

Come All Ye Faithful, a venomous minor-key kiss-off anthem, has as much of a funky bounce as this band could ever manage. No-One is a sequel, just as vicious and even catchier, set in a place where everyone’s “Dressed up in Halloween, where nobody ever screams.”

McGinty’s baroque electric piano ripples anxiously in Tiny Hands, a grimly knowing account of family dysfunction. Butler keeps that theme front and center over an acoustic-electric sway in Hide the Medicine. The band close the album with Turn Your Back on Me and its dreampop Dark Side of the Moon sonics, and then Stars, a wistfully twinkling, distantly Lynchian anthem.

Where does this fit in the Furs’ hall-of-fame lineup of albums? Somewhere in the middle. File this between the musically rich but lyrically deficient 1991 album World Outside and the 1982 classic Forever Now.

Matt Ulery Puts Out One of the Most Kinetically Gorgeous Albums of the Past Several Months

Bassist Matt Ulery is this era’s great Romantic. Nobody writes more lyrical songs without words than this guy. Blending classical elegance and art-rock intensity with jazz improvisation, his music has a consistently vivid, epically cinematic quality. His latest album, Delicate Charms is streaming at Bandcamp; just so you know, it’s not delicate at all.

Pianist Rob Clearfield gets most of the choicest, most poignant moments here, although everybody else in the band – alto saxophonist Greg Ward, violinist Zach Brock and drummer Quin Kirchner – get plenty of chances to make a mark as well. The harmonies between sax and violin sound much more orchestral than you could possibly get from just two instruments, and Kirchner nails the lush ambience with an impressive understatement, saving his tumbles and cymbal spashes for the most dramatic moments.

The opening number, Coping is a theme and variations, Clearfield’s plaintive lines giving way to achingly gorgeous sax/violin harmonies and eventually a steady, cantering drive to a decisive triplet groove through a real struggle of a coda on the wings of Brock’s dancing solo. It’s a mighty payoff.

The Effortless Enchantment has distant latin inflections and a wistful, hopeful theme set to a balletesque pulse, with a similarly hopeful upward trajectory, Clearfield’s insistence and defiant flourishes at the center.

Mellisonant has a slow, saturnine, syncopated sway lit up by Brock’s acerbic, leaping lines and Ward’s guarded optimism. A practically accusatory, lush crescendo, a wary litheness and a ferocious forest fire of a coda ensue before the band bring the song full circle.

The Air We Breathe, a restless, stormy jazz waltz, ironically has one of Clearfield’s most concise, emphatic solos and similarly vigorous work from Ward. At eight and a half minutes, Taciturn is anything but, and has the album’s most lightheartedly leaping moments before the piano and drums come crashing in.

October, with its brisk, pensive, uneasy stroll and bittersweetly rippling piano, could be the high point of the record. As usual, the bandleader’s inobtrusive drive and use of implied melody are a clinic in smart, interesting bass.

The group close the album with Nerve, glittering with echo phrases, glisteningly circular piano and finally a bittersweet bass solo (when’s the last time you heard one of those) from Ulery. Good luck multitasking to this; you might as well give up now and settle in for the ride.