New York Music Daily

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Hauntingly Atmospheric Art-Rock Instrumentals from Brilliant Bassist Dana Schechter’s Insect Ark

Dana Schechter is one of this era’s great bass players. Her sinewy, biting low-register lines brought an unexpected elegant and grace to Michael Gira’s Angels of Light. After that, she led the hauntingly cinematic Bee & Flower. Her latest project, the richly atmospheric art-rock instrumental band Insect Ark with Taurus drummer Ashley Spungin, might well be her darkest yet. They’re headlining at St. Vitus on July 2 at 11 PM; cover is $10. Dead Kennedys-influenced Pennnslvania hardcore/punk band the Abandos open the night at 8 followed by Pawns – good luck finding them on the web – and then keyboardist Shari Vari’s 80s-tinged darkwave pop project Void Vision.

It’s amazing how much density, and mighty majesty, and how many cumulo-nimbus textures Schechter gets out of just lapsteel, keys, bass and drums on the new album, Portal/Well. What’s most impressive is that Schechter plays all of the instruments herself. The title track sets the tone, a steady, ominously atmospheric dirge, dark washes of lapsteel and keys shifting through the picture, distorted chords lingering and then rising in a dense, grey mist, aching to break free.

The Collector builds from a creepy tritone synth loop with a minimalist bassline that brings to mind early Wire, picking up steam as it bends and sways, and ends up back where it started. Lowlands is a miniature, awash in sustain from slow-burning lapsteel. The album’s most epic track, Octavia, opens as an opaque, Richard Wright-like minimalist-yet-maximalist mood piece and takes on a deep-space grandeur as layers and layers of lapsteel cut through the mist, then create their own. The miniature that follows, Crater Lake, is the most straight-up Eno-esque atmospheric piece here.

Taalith – a reference to an eerily portentous Isabelle Eberbardt short story about a drowning – could be described as slowcore spacerock, anchored on the low end by growling bass and at the top by drifting sheets from the lapsteel: the Friends of Dean Martinez taking a slow, syncopated stroll on Pluto. Parallel Twin, with its doppler effects and unexpected drum accents, is the most cinematic and suspenseful, picking up with some tasty, chromatic bass chords: it’s the closest thing to Bee & Flower here. The final cut, Low Moon is the droniest and most surreal, its stygian waves contrasting with almost droll, lo-fi synth oscilations. Only one of the tracks – The Collector – is up at Insect Ark’s Bandcamp page, but there are a handful of similarly brooding, intense singles there, and more stuff at Soundcloud as well. And it almost goes without saying that Schechter is the rare artist whose work is always worth owning. If you want more info on this, one of the few reliably good music blogs, The Obelisk did a good piece on the band.

Lucinda Williams: Tipsy But Not Phoning It In at Prospect Park

Lucinda Williams was wasted last night. Then again, that’s her vocal shtick – that low, raspy drawl always sounds like she’s half in the bag. The giveaway at her Prospect Park Bandshell show was the looseness, the long jams that her fantastic band burned through (and sometimes didn’t seem sure about where Williams wanted to wrap them up), and when she talked to the audience. At least she threw a shout to Bernie Sanders into her ramble, which drew the most applause of the evening – until she lit into an ill-advised encore of Neil Young’s Keep on Rocking in the Free World, complete with Bon Jovi-style backing vocals, anyway. But the crowd loved that too.

And the boozy, dissociative approach worked. Williams may have had a cheat sheet held together with binder clips, but she wasn’t phoning anything in. When she finally got to Essence, the “I’ve been waiting in this bar” part of that big, gorgeous chorus was pure, straight-up authenticity. Likewise, the cynical TMI of Those Three Days, its wounded narrator snarling about“You found a hole and then you came.”

They opened with a stark, almost otherwordly, Howlin Wolf-inspired Something Wicked This Way Comes. Brilliant lead guitarist Stuart Mathis’ searing, blues-infused lines on Righteously evoked peak-era Mick Taylor, then bassist David Sutton built to a stomping conclusion with some neat chordal work. Then Mathis went into acidic swamp-rock mode for Buttercup, where he stayed for most of the set, beyond his sparsely jangly twelve-string lines on Drunken Angel.

Arguably the best song of the night was a new one, the bitterly swaying adolescent alienation anthem West Memphis, from Williams’ double-cd set Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone. The biggest hit of the night, at least til the FM radio rock covers of the encore, was a crushing doom-metal version of Unsuffer Me, so slow that it raised the question of whether the band had resurrected an obscure number by Black Sabbath or Sleep.

By the time the band got to Lake Charles, Williams was the picture of forlornness, abandoned and forsaken and drowning her sorrows. Then the songs got even sadder with the the vamping 2 Cool 2 Be Forgotten. From there, the band picked up the pace with a slinky take of Are You Down, part early Tom Petty, part Santana, drummer Butch Norton dueling it out with Mathis during a lively, latin-flavored doublespeed jam. After that, a new one, Foolishness, made a platform for more jamming and randomly caustic commentary on current events, Williams defiantly telling the crowd one thing that freedom means to her is that she can drink and drug however much she feels like.

Later numbers included another new one, Protection, which wasn’t much more than a one-chord jam; Get Right with God, which was more blues than gospel; and an expansive, rather haphazard, bluesily swaying take of Joy.  This year’s schedule of free outdoor shows at the Prospect Park Bandshell includes movies and plenty of other stuff besides just music, which as usual is a mixed bag. The next really enticing concert there is on July 10 at 7 PM with popular, humorous, brass-fueled Argentine ska-punk band Los Autenticos Decadentes.

Nathaniel Rateliff Reinvents Himself as a Kick-Ass, Original Soul Bandleader

What do you do if your singer-songwriter career stalls out? Reinvent yourself as an oldschool soul bandleader, maybe. Nathaniel Rateliff did it, with the same results as when Phil Niekro switched out the fastball for the knuckler, or when James Brown moved from behind the organ to take over the mic. Rateliff’s show last night, at a private event for media on the Lower East Side with his inspired new band the Night Sweats, was irresistibly fun, an auspicious kickoff to what’s becoming a marathon summer tour (dates are here).

The Alabama Shakes are just the tip of the iceberg: as any club booking agent knows, the retro 60s soul craze just refuses to stop, and Rateliff is the latest to catch the wave. On one hand his songs – vamping two-chord verses rising to even catchier, anthemic choruses – hardly pave any new ground. And a cynic might assail him for recycling riffs that any bar-band musician knows by heart. What makes Rateliff different is that he’s an excellent, distinctive lead guitarist. Playing through a reverb pedal turned up most of the way, his shivery, practically feral solos took the energy to redline every time and elevated the songs above the level of generic. And he doesn’t waste notes, either.

The band is excellent, too. Second guitarist Joseph Pope III distinguished himself with his fluency in vintage Memphis licks, and a hard-hitting, chord-chopping solo on the night’s last number. The bassist held down a steady, swinging groove in tandem with drummer Patrick Meese, who pushed the songs with a hard-hitting stadium rock drive. And organist Mark Shusterman harmonized meticulously with the two-man horn section, tenor sax and trumpet blending to deliver a sound a lot more hefty than you would think just three instruments could produce. This wasn’t Muscle Shoals, 1969 – it was state-of-the-art, 2015.

That being said, their style of soul rocks pretty hard and doesn’t go near jazz. They got to halfway through the set before they even hit a minor chord – after all, this is party music. But they do everything possible to keep the audience entertained, opening one number a-cappella with what sounded like five-part harmonies (everybody in the band sings, well), and bedeviled the audience (and themselves – this is a work in progress) with a series of trick endings. A slow nocturnal groove toward the end hinted at the Stones’ Gimme Shelter, but didn’t go there, instead rising to a more optimistic, animated peak, capped off with a searing Rateliff solo. They finally slowed down for a ballad in 6/8 right before the last song, which turned out to be a licketysplit shuffle possible titled Sonofabitch. If ithat in fact is the title, it will be a hit with every English-speaking six-year-old when it hits youtube, which it inevitably will. Be the first sonofabitch on your block to party to this band and bring your significant other.

Organist Christopher Houlihan Plays an Exhilarating, Insightful Program in Chelsea

Organist Christopher Houlihan has world-class chops and the kind of passion that most people who tackle playing the king of the instruments have in abundance. Houlihan’s strength is that he’s able to communicate that passion, not just with fast fingers and feet, but by engaging the audience with plenty of insight into both craft and history. At his Chelsea concert Thursday night at Holy Apostles Church, he recounted the tragic tale of composer Louis Vierne, who collapsed at the console at Notre Dame and landed on the very bottom pedal, serenading the audience with an ominous drone for more than a minute until someone figured out something wasn’t right and discovered his lifeless body. That incident is well known to fans of the organ repertoire; Houlihan also shared several other gloomy facts about the composer, whose symphonic cycle he played to much acclaim both in the organ demimonde and beyond it a couple of years ago. And then he followed with three movements from Vierne’s Symphony No. 4.

Houlihan explained that these would be somewhat uncharacteristic for the typically turbulent, sometimes wrathful Vierne, and they were: a mutedly balletesque take of the Menuet, a lively yet meticulous romp through the Romance and then the finale, which returned with a roar to emotional terrain more familiar to the composer.

Bookending the concert with pieces by Bach made sense, considering the darkly baroque colors of the organ. Houlihan described the popular Prelude and Fugue in E Minor, BWV 548 as a series of kaleidoscopic variations that went off on innumerable interesting tangents, then backed that up with a rippling, steady attack, making imaginative use of high woodwind voicings on the first part of the fugue. In a clever bit of programming, he also bookended a transcription of Brahms’ choral prelude No. 11 – the composer’s saturnine final work – with an early piece, the Prelude and Fugue in A Minor, an ambitious exercise in counterpoint.

Houlihan likened Henry Martin‘s Prelude and Fugue in B Flat Major to “what Gershwin would have done with a prelude and fugue,” and he was right on the money with that too. The world premiere of a commission from Michael Barone of NPR’s Pipedreams, from a series of twelve of those pieces in every key, after Bach, it turned out to be an intriguingly orchestrated series of circling phrases that eventually loosened with a ragtime-inflected flair. At the end of the program, the crowd – an especially large one – gave Houlihan a standing ovation and wouldn’t let up until he’d come back for the encore. The organ world needs more ambassadors like him.

The Grasping Straws Release Their Savagely Intense, Tuneful New Album at the Mercury

New York band the Grasping Straws have been through a lot of changes, but their latest incarnation is absolutely spine-tingling. Their ambitious debut ep – streaming at Bandcamp – introducd them as a rainy-day, jazz-tinged, jangly project in the same vein the Cardigans or Comet Gain. Their forthcoming album takes the energy up several thousand volts – wow! Frontwoman Mallory Feuer blends an otherwordly, raw, bluesy edge with the fearlessness of pre-meltdown Courtney Love, both vocally and guitarwise, instantly putting this group on the map as one of New York’s most distinctive, individualistic, exciting new bands. They’re playing the album release show on June 30 at 10:30 PM at the Mercury/ Sultry punk-folk-soul siren Liah Alonso – formerly of politically fueled rockers Left on Red – opens the night at 9:30 PM. Cover is $10.

Although there are some identifiable influences in the band’s sound, Fiona Apple first and foremost, their sound is unique. Feuer’s chords ring out with a reverbtoned, enigmatic edge, her vocals wailing, murmuring or occasionally rising to a goosebump-inducing scream with a sardonic lyrical bite while hard-hitting drummer Jim Bloom holds the songs to the rails. Sam Goldfine – formerly of popular alternative rock road warriors Beast Make Bomb – completes the picture as the band’s latest addition. Recorded in analog to two-inch tape, the album’s production has an immediacy that captures their rollercoaster live show.

The jaggedly catchy opening track, State of Affairs reflects the disarray left in the wake of Hurricane Sandy in 2012, the year Feuer, a native New Yorker, founded the band. She switches gears with the ghostly, stark intro to Home, building to an uneasy, acidic vintage Sonic Youth grit. Just a Memory welds wounded, blues-infused paisley underground psychedelia to a late 80s Seattle assault.

Bloom pushes How Will I Grow with a scrambling punk rock pulse; Feuer’s indignant vocals channel Heart’s Ann Wilson as second guitarist Rob Krug adds acid blues textures. Feuer takes Say It Ain’t So up to a frantic doublespeed attack, then flips the script with Your Face, which begins as a hauntingly spare reflection drenched in natural reverb, then rises to a shatteringly epic peak (listen to those multitracked screams at 2:17 – bone-chilling!). The final cut, Don’t Hold Your Breath, looks back to the enigmatic, jazz-inflected vein the band mined in their early days. First-class tracks wall to wall with this one: put it on the shortlist for best full-length debut of 2015.

Chris Dingman Releases His Richly Nocturnal New Album at WNYC”s Greene Space

Chris Dingman isn’t just a talented jazz vibraphonist: he’s a brlliant tunesmith. He probably scored his album release gig with his band the Subliminal and the Sublime this June 26 at 7 PM at the Greene Space because he wrote a popular WNYC radio theme that everybody in the organization knows, so nobody could say no to the idea. Cover is $15 and worth it: if magically enveloping, dreamy music is your thing, go to this show and get lost in it.

Truthfully, Dingman could probably write a catchy radio theme in his sleep. For this project, he’s assembled a crew of cutting-edge New York talent – Loren Stillman on alto sax, Fabian Almazan on piano, Linda Oh on bass, Ryan Ferreira on guitar and Justin Brown on drums – to play a warmly nocturnal series of longform compositions that in a previous century could be spliced into familiar tv themes, or film sequences. The opening track, Tectonic Plates works off a resonant, simple, echoing melody built by bowing the vibraphone, rising from the quietest, shifting shades to a balmy sax passage. Ferreira’s guitar switches from ambience to chords only as it ends.

The epic Voices of the Ancient is a throwback to the late 70s with its wavelike, dynamically shifting rhythm, Stillman taking centerstage judiciously. Much of Dingman’s work has a saturnine ambience, and this seventeen minute-plus piece is a prime example. From the intro, bassist Linda Oh manages to be both an anchor and a marionette simultaneously, Dingman and Almazan supplying a hypnotic glitter and then backing away as a 70s neon-jazz theme coalesces and then takes a long trajectory upward, Ferreira’s pinging guitar leading the way. They take it out with a long, gentle, steady postlude worthy of any Times Square documentary circa 1977.

The album’s gently but insistently cinematic centerpiece, The Pinnacles, rises from an intricately below-the-surface piano-and-vibraphone confluence of currents, making way for Stillman’s balmy sax. Dingman’s judiciously resonant lines bring to mind Milt Jackson, Stillman following a more offcenter tangent as Brown pushes the group to transcend 70s hippie tedium. And suddenly, just when you least expect it, there’s a long, pulsing moment of terror.

The lingering, expansive outro makes a comfortable segue into the album’s conclusion, All Flows Forth, with its gentle syncopation, insistent alternating rhythmic accents and interlocking, pointillistic polyrhythms. On the way out, the band swings it and sways it, emphatically and memorably. In an era where the Bush family, their collaborators and apologists are buying up global water assets, Dingman’s wary naturalistic themes make more sense than ever.

Gracie Terzian: Lightning in a Bottle

There was a construction crane over Gracie Terzian‘s head. But she didn’t seem stressed – and as it turned out, it didn’t fall, or drop a megaton load on her.

OK, it wasn’t directly over her head. Any angst she might have been feeling, swaying in front of her jazz quartet earlier this evening in the corner of the rooftop bar at the new Hotel Hugo on Greenwich Street just north of Spring, was probably coming from a much closer place. Looking south toward the financial district, the crane was in the background directly behind her. Metaphorically loaded New York image, perfectly crystallized, 2015.

Although she’s comfortable singing jazz standards, Terzian distinguishes herself by writing her own songs. Watching her, the restlessness was visceral, a carefully channeled intensity just waiting to bust out. And there was more than a hint that she would be more at home under lower lights, on a bigger stage. Granted, this was a night where just about everybody wanted out of their skin and into a walk-in fridge. “Waited twenty years before I could breathe,” she sang in her disarmingly straightforward, airconditioned alto – another perfectly extemporaneous, metaphorical moment.

Young jazz chanteuses tend to throw themselves in an audience’s direction, but not Terzian. She opened the night’s first set with her original Saints and Poets, a dare to anyone to match her individualism and willingness to go out on a limb. She gave the song a low-key allure, but left the door ajar for menace to enter the room, bending her blue notes with a nonchalance that could have gone totally Lynchian but didn’t. Much of her material was taken from her auspicious debut album, including Love Rest, where she deftly built a jazz waltz out of an oldschool soul vamp. And the cajolery in the casually cheery bossa-jazz number Sleepwalker had a dark undercurrent: “I sleepwalk, I apologize” – yikes!

Terzian’s band is the New Dominion, since everybody in the group hails from the Washington, DC area. Old Dominion, New Dominion, cute, huh? But cuteness doesn’t factor into Terzian’s songwriting or stage presence, or for that matter, the band. The rhythm section – bassist Charlie Himel and drummer Graham Doby – gave her a lithe, slinky backdrop and guitarist Brett Jones supplied every hip voicing in the book, shifting dynamically without any worry whether the extended family assembled on the banquette or the trio of soccer hooligans on the balcony were in on the magic the group were working to create. Terzian closed the set with Exit Strategy, its tense contemplation of a breakup channeled through brooding chromatics and unexpected key changes that flew off the page.

Terzian and the New Dominion continue their residency throughout the summer every Monday night starting at around 6:30 PM at Bar Hugo on the roof of the Hugo Hotel, 525 Greenwich Street just north of Spring, just a few blocks from either the C/E to Spring St. or the 1 to Houston. To call this place laid back is an understatement: there’s plenty of fancy food and drink available, or you can just chill and watch the clouds from the balcony.

This Year’s Bang on a Can Marathon Focuses on Its Core Talent

What better to jar a sleepy crowd out of a pre-noon summer torpor than a steel pan orchestra? Kendall Williams’ arrangement of a Lord Nelson calypso hit, with its exubertant resemblance to a ballpark organ version of Take Me Out to the Ballgame, made an apt kickoff to this year’s Bang on a Can Marathon. The 2015 edition of the annual avant garde festival differentiated itself from previous concerts with its emphasis on larger-scale works, circling the wagons with a somewhat abbreviated list of performers. Past years featured an often exhilarating mix of global acts, frequently going on til almost dawn. This one was somewhat shorter, focusing more on a rotating cast of characters from the Bang on a Can organization and its triumvirate, composers David Lang, Michael Gordon and Julia Wolfe. The live stream is here; much of the concert will air eventually on John Schaefer’s New Sounds program on WNYC.

Pianist Vicky Chow tackled the challenge of an hour’s worth of staccato, motorik minimalism by Tristan Perich while variously processed electronic echoes rose and fell, sometimes subsuming Chow’s literally marathon performance. Echoing Brian Eno, the piece gave the rapidly growing financial district winter garden crowd a chance to sink back into a Sunday reverie before it unexpectly rose to a long series of demandingly energetic ripples. Chow probably welcomed several opportunies to pause and breathe when the machines took over completely. There was a clever false ending and a resonantly minimalist return to stillness and calm. Later in the day, bassist Florent Ghys followed a similar trajectory with a slinky noir groove and increasingly dancing, cinematic variations over kinetic, higher-register loops: a trippy, lively instrumental karaoke performance, essentially.

The Dither Guitar Quartet delivered a deliciously gritty, bitingly chromatic Lainie Fefferman Velvet Underground homage evoking Daydream Nation-era Sonic Youth. Thanks to a few judicious kicks of a boot into a loop pedal, they had a stomping beat behind their savagely crescendoing forest of overtones and blistering roar.

Mighty six-piano ensemble Grand Band hit a similar peak a bit later on with Lang’s Face So Pale, a substantially slower reworking of a Guillaume du Fay renaissance composition that did double duty as a mass and a “pop song,” as Lang put it. The group meticulously synchronized its pointillistically hypnotic, staccato incisions with the same precision that the sheet music on each player’s tablet flipped from page to page. What a treat it was to be in the second row for a dreamy surround-sound experience of that one.

Asphalt Orchestra played three joyous reinventions of Pixies favorites, reaffirming how well that band’s output translates to brass band. Sousaphone player John Altieri anchored the music, alto saxophonist Ken Thomson and trumpeter Stephanie Richards providing some of the afternoon’s most unselfconsiously adrenalizing moments. Then the Crossfire Steel Orchestra returned for a dancing but bracing Kendall Williams composition, rising and falling insistently.

Within minutes, Thomson was back onstage, this time on clarinet with the house art-rock band the Bang on a Can All-Stars, playing material from their latest album Field Recordings. They did Wolfe’s lilting, Acadian-flavored Reeling to accompany a recording of Canadian “mouth music.” Arguably the high point of the festival, Johann Johannsson‘s Hz built a vast, ominously looming horizontal expanse punctuated by David Cossin’s creepily twinkling vibraphone and Mark Stewart’s mighty washes of distorted guitar chords. Anna Clyne‘s A Wonderful Day grounded a sunny African-flavored melody in the dark textures of Robert Black’s bass, Thomson’s bass clarinet and Ashley Bathgate’s cello. Composer Todd Reynolds introduced his gospel choir mashup Seven Sundays witih a shout-out to the victims of the past week’s South Carolina massacre. Fueled by Bathgate’s sinewy lines, it turned out to be a characteristically jaunty dance with stadium rock heft and trippy hip-hop tinges.

The group’s final performance of the night, written by the BOAC three in collaboration with composer Lao Luo, was backing Chinese theatre chanteuse Gong Linna, pulling out all the stops for a dramatic triptych based on ancient shamanic songs.. The first invoked a fertility god, rising from rustic bluesiness to a towering vocal crescendo. The second, directed in English to a destructive river god, built from shivery low-string menace to a big, looping gallop, eventually coming full circle wih a visceral menace. The finale was a tonguetwistingly rapidfire polysyllabic love song to the mountain spirit – “Everybody in China knows this one,” grinned Linna – the mighty goddess ultimately spurning the shaman’s entreaties. You could call it kabuki rock.

Pianist Tomoko Mukaiyama made her way energetically through a creepy, Philip Glass-esque series of cellular motives from Somei Satoh‘s Ostinato Variations and then his alternately neoromantic and resonantly minimalistic, dynamically shifing Incarnations.  Third Angle New Music tackled Julian Day’s electroacoustic cut-and-paste Quartz, veering from sputtery to atmospheric as the piece ostensibly incorporated passages from two famous unfinished works, Haydn’s String Quartet in D and Schumann’s Quartettsatz. As it went on, it echoed Wolfe’s ominous adventures in string music, notably her chilling Cruel Sister suite.

Playing in the center of the atrium, Asphalt Orchestra’s versions of a trio of tunes by the pyrotechnic magician of Bulgarian clarinet music, Ivo Papasov swirled and blended into the space’s echoey sonics to the point where it wasn’t possible to tell if the band was actually playing his signature, machinegunning volleys note for note, or whether they were just holding them. But either way, what a way to send the energy to redline in a split second. Wisely, they returned to the more hospitable sonics of the stage for the final barn-burner.

Grand Band returned for their bandmate Paul Kerekes‘ Wither and Bloom, a diptych illustrating decay and rebirth. The first section’s flitting motives shifting elegantly into more minimal terrain, the second going in the opposite direction. Their final performance was a sardonic commissioned work from Gordon informed by childhood piano lesson trauma, a percussive, polyrhythmic roller-coaster ride punctuated by the occasional etude-like cascade.

So Percussion, with guitarist Nels Cline, did Bobby Previte’s Terminal 3 and 4, the composer on drums. Cline’s reverb roar, skronky Keith Levene-esque whistles and wails and white noise on the first number, outdoing the Dither guys for sheer volume, echoed out over staccato drum volleys like the Grateful Dead’s Space on crack. The second was a shticky but mercilessly funny portrait of the kind of torture drummers suffer, as well as the ones they inflict on the rest of us.

Brazilian percussionist/showman Cyro Baptista, leading a trio with Brian Marsella on multikeys and Tim Keiper on second drumkit, got a loud, jungly drone going and then launched into an animated shuffle, using a thicket of offbeat instruments from a big gong to a jawharp. Spacy, frantic hardbop gave way to vaudevillian audience-response antics, lots of pummeling and a return to dissociative disco.

Glenn Branca wound up the marathon, conducting a band with four guitars – two Fenders, an Ibanez Fender copy  and something else – plus minimal bass and pounding drums. It’s not the first time he’s done it and it probably won’t be the last. Branca still air-conducts with a very physical, Jimmy Page-style presence, in contrast to the group’s low-key focus. They opened with German Expressionism, a slowly swaying exchange of disquieting tritone-laced riffs; Jazzmaster player Arad Evans played the solo part on Branca’s looming Smoke guitar concerto, a turbocharged look back at a time when New York acts like Live Skull pulverized audiences. The group wound up with a trio of the composer’s signature more-or-less one-chord jams, part no wave orchestra, My Bloody Valentine and Also Sprach Zarathustra. Although this year’s marathon was about as abbreviated – relatively speaking – as other recent ones have been, it felt even shorter. Maybe that’s because there were so few lulls, the music and performances being consistently strong almost all the way through.

Some random observations: a painfully precious spoken-word component ruined an intriguingly swoopy and spiky LJ White piece for violin and cello played agilely by a subset of Third Angle New Music. The upstairs food court drew all the rugrats and their parents, leaving the downstairs mostly to concertgoers. Joy! The grounds crew shut off that obnoxious alarm on the elevator at the rear of the area: double joy! The roof leaking rain, not so joyful – the pianos got it good but this blog’s laptop escaped undamaged.

Another marathon, this one on the Upper West Side begininng on Saturday and ending this morning, offered a more improvisational kind of fun based on Erik Satie’s Vexations. A creepy, loopy piece designed to be played over and over a total of 840 times, it inspired composers Randall Woolf and Art Jarvinen to come up with their own variations.  A relay team of pianists assembled by Jed Distler began the performance at 8 AM and were planning on finishing up 24 hours later: a stop in on them late Saturday morning found both a pianist and electronic keyboardist blending textures over a loop of the Satie, occasionally embellished by both players, including a droll quote from one of the Gymnopedies. It would have been fun to have been able to stick around for more.

Nneka Brings Her Politically-Fueled, Eclectic African Reggae Sounds to the Mercury

Born in Nigeria, raised in Germany, Nneka has gone in many directions over the course of her relatively young career: through soukous-tinged African pop, roots reggae, stripped-down acoustic folk and more ornately jazzy stylings, all of them imbued with a fearless political sensibility. She sings her aphoristic, terse lyrics in a fervent voice that rises to a gritty, almost otherwordly wail when she goes up the scale. The effect is both ancient and in the here and now. She has a new album, My Fairy Tales – streaming at Spotify – and a show at the Mercury on June 23 at 7 PM. Advance tix are $15.

Nneka’s English is better than the songs on the album might have you believe (she titled her second album No Longer at Ease, after the classic Chinua Achebe postcolonial novel). And the songs are a stylistic grab bag, possibly due to having traipsed from studio to studio in making the album. This time out, her lyrics are more skeletal and opaque – several of them in her native dialect -and the revolutionary sensibility both more general than specific, and further in the background. The opening track, Believe System is something of a mashup of Afropop, roots reggae and Stevie Wonder. Likewise, Babylon builds a hard funk backdrop around some lively mid-70s SW-style riffage.

The reggae-lite My Love, My Love goes deeper into its roots on the reprise that follows it, while Local Champion works a trippy, techy vibe with layers of blippy keys. Pray for You takes a disco groove backwards from cold teens electronics to a biting, guitar-fueled 70s vibe. Surprise veers between a propulsive soca bounce and electro-reggae, while the morose impoverishment tale Book of Job is an attempt to make a roots song out of samples and cheap keyb settings. And the last song sounds like it was assembled with Garageband in somebody’s bedroom. On one hand, it’s authentically African – this is what people do when all there is to work with is a secondhand dollarstore Casio. On the other, Nneka is an artist with ostensible label backing and access to topflight recording situations and gear. But she’s also a charismatic performer with a strong back catalog and the ability to transcend the limitations of these recordings onstage.

Parlor Walls Entertain Bushwick, Then Hit Cake Shop with Their Goodies

Parlor Walls have a bracingly fun ep that for lack of a better word could be called noiserock, a free download at Bandcamp. But they’re way more than that – and they have a lot more material than just what’s up there. A couple of weeks ago at the laid-back new venue Alphaville in Bushwick, they did more onstage in barely half an hour than most bands could do in two. While there’s no predictable verse/chorus structure to their songs and they like noise as much as tunes, their material can be awfully catchy.: when they have to, they keep things simple. They’re playing at 9 PM on June 25 at Cake Shop; cover is $8 and worth it. They’re also at Trans-Pecos the following night, June 26 at 9, opening for no wave sax legend James Chance; cover is $10.

Even though the Bushwick gig was late on a work night, there was a good crowd in the house, and the band kept them there. Frontwoman/guitarist Alyse Lamb – better known as the leader of the very popular Eula – would switch in a split-second from throwing off shards of reverb, to apprehensive postpunk chromatics, a hint of Chris Isaak noir twang, and oldfashioned punk rock roar. Meanwhile, drummer Chris Mulligan held down a thunderously swinging pulse and anchored the songs with deep washes of organ at the same time. This band’s ancestor, lineupwise if not exactly stylistically, is cult classic dark blues duo Mr. Airplane Man.

Guest alto saxophonist Kate Mohanty added an element of surprise, switching between blustery postbop jazz clusters, trickily rhythmic indie classical circles, reverb-drenched no wave acidity, abrasive duotone washes and catchy, blippy, polyrhythmic phrases. There was a menacingly psychedelic, drony quality to a couple of songs, like the Black Angels on molly. Other songs introduced tricky tempos (if memory serves right, one was in 9/8), dreamy/biting organ/guitar contrasts; and half the time it was impossible to tell who was playing the high frequencies, Lamb or Mohanty, the sound was so immersive. Persistent Daydream Nation echoes surfaced and then resurfaced frequently, Lamb’s vocals somewhat less agitated than they can be in Eula. And the trio did all this within the constrictions of maybe three minutes per song at the absolute max.

And there were fringe benefits: Lamb had brought lots of delicious homemade oatmeal-banana cookies. A whole tupperware containerful! They were almost as good as the music. On a night when the trains were all messed up and there was no telling how long it was going to take to get home, and stopping at a deli might mean missing the last train and a long walk to Myrtle Avenue, that hit the spot. Not that there’s any guarantee that there’ll be free munchies at the Cake Shop gig, but…you never know. It is Cake Shop after all.

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