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Frogbelly & Symphony Bring Their Enigmatic, Apocalyptic Art-Rock to Gowanus on May 12

Psychedelic art-rockers Frogbelly & Symphony are the kind of band you want to catch on the way up. They’re like a vintage Jaguar: when they’re firing on all twelve cylinders, their elegant power can be breathtaking, a force to be reckoned with. When those cylinders aren’t all firing in sync, things can get messy. Their latest album Blue Bright Ow Sleep – streaming at Spotify – leaves no doubt as to the band’s ambition and talent. They’re playing Rock Shop on May 12 at around 10:30 PM; cover is $10

The album opens aptly with Minderbinder:

A chance to rebuild
Destruction brings us closer…
All we have is nothing,
But we turn it into something….

announces frontwoman/violinist Liz Hanley in her big, dramatic wail – the song sounds like Siouxsie fronting the Mars Volta. Then Hanley launches into a litany of funny food metaphors, like a hip-hop version of REM’s It’s the End of the World and We Know It. All this and orchestral flourishes in less than five minutes.

The calm jangle and  propulsive drive of Invite to Eternity masks its darkly pensive surrealism; the soaring violin gives it a bite that reminds of another first-rate, kinetic female-fronted art-rock band, the Sometime Boys.

Hanley’s uneasy operatics soar over Ben Trott’s eerie guitar flickers as Ride Off Into the Sunset gets underway: With its mythic imagery, Romany guitar chromatics and keening theremin in the background, it’s akin to Humanwine on blotter acid, or the late, great Norden Bombsight. Which comes as no surprise considering that ex-Norden Bombsight guitarist David Marshall is a frequent collaborator.

Patch of Blue builds out of drummer Ray Rizzo’s Frankenstein sway with sinister layers of vocals into straight-up metal, winding down as bassist Tom Hanley delivers a troubled ending:

Firing a pulley
From the cannons of a knee
It is your moment of clarity
Shackled to a tree

Cola in Mongolia switches to an ambling, jangly Velvets pulse with circus rock theatrics, a subtly snide critique of consumerism. Leyla’s Find has tricky syncopation and looping, aphoristic lyrics: a snarlingly psychedelic rock take on Nina Simone, maybe. The seafaring metaphors of Shingle build an eerie eco-disaster narrative as the band reverts to jaunty, violin-fueled art-rock. It’s a genuinely brilliant song, a smoldering example of how much promise this band has.

The frontwoman’s cynical, doomed hip-hop-tinged lyrics contrast with the slow, dreamy atmospherics of Organism. The album’s big desperate coda is Hazyland, a duet between the Hanleys, which sounds like a more concise Brian Jonestown Massacre. This is the kind of band that ought to be in front of a big festival crowd, delivering their epic cautionary tales to an audience that gets them.

Sandaraa Build a Magical Bridge with Pakistani and Jewish Sounds

You want esoteric…and way fun? How about a mashup of Pakistani and klezmer sounds? Meet south Asian/Jewish jamband Sandaraa (Pashto for “song”). While they have some rock instrumentation, they’re not a rock band. They sound more Middle Eastern than anything else, which makes sense since Jewish music has roots there, and those exotic modes filtered east centuries, even millennia ago. The brainchild of star Pakistani chanteuse Zebunnisa Bangash and klezmer clarinet powerhouse Michael Winograd, the band also includes Dolunay violinist Eylem Basaldi, Klezmatics/Herbie Hancock drummer Richie Barshay, bassist David Lizmi (of bewitchingly noir cinematic band Karla Rose & the Thorns and Moroccan trance group Innov Gnawa), supersonic accordionist Patrick Farrell, and Israeli surf/metal/jazz guitarist Yoshie Fruchter. Their debut album is streaming at Storyamp, and they’ve got a Barbes show coming up on May 16 at 7 PM where they debut their new Urdu poetry-inspired project The Pomegranate of Sistan, addressing “religious orthodoxy and nationalism across cultural divides.”

.While a lot of westerners may associate Pakistan with ghazals and qawwali, Sandaraa incorporate more rustic styles from remote regions of the country. The album’s opening track, Jegi Jegi Lailajan opens with an edgy Middle Eastern freygish riff and then slinks along on an undulating, syncopated groove, Bangash’s suspensefully enticing, air-conditioned delivery rising to warmer heights and then back to more pensive terrain. Who knew Barshay could play clip-clop south Asian percussion, or how effortlessly Fruchter would gravitate to the spiky phrasing of Pakistani rubab music?

Surrealistically blippy Their Majesties Satanic Request organ underscores Bangash’s expressive delivery as the band opens Mana Nele, then they ride Farrell’s pulsing, Qawwali-esque accordion waves, Basaldi and Winograd delivering achingly melancholy, Middle Eastern modal riffage in tandem.

Winograd opens Bibi Sanem Janem with a brief, starkly cantorially-inspired clarinet taqsim, then Fruchter pushes it along with his moody oud until Barshay’s tumbling qawwali groove and Farrell’s steady pulse take over. Winograd takes it out with a long, vividly austere, low-register solo.

A tenderly catchy, shapeshifting lullaby, Dilbarake Nazinim opens with an expansively rustic, pensive solo from Fruchter. The album winds up with the slinky, upbeat Haatera Tayiga, a jaunty mashup that best capsulizes the joyous stylistic brew this band manages to conjure: it’s amazing how much they manage to pack into a single song. As musical hybrids go, there hasn’t been an album this fun or full of surprises released this year.

Beninghove’s Hangmen Release Their Most Savagely Cinematic Noir Instrumental Album

In the jazz world, Bryan Beninghove is known as a monster tenor and soprano saxophonist and a connoisseur of Romany swing. But he’s also one of this era’s great film composers. His most interesting project may be his noir instrumental band, Beninghove’s Hangmen. Their previous two original albums both ranked in the top five of the year here; their new one, Pineapples and Ashtrays – streaming at Bandcamp – is their most eclectic, twistedly picturesque and definitely their funniest. Much as Beninghove’s creepy riffage and rainswept themes make him one of the small handful of film score writers who deserve mention alongside Angelo Badalamenti, he also has a snide, deviously erudite sense of humor and that’s front and center here. The band are playing the album release show on May 26 at around 10 at the Citizen, 332 2nd St. in Jersey City, about six blocks from the Grove St. Path station.

The album opens with Astronete, arguably the most sarcastic cha-cha ever written. Beninghove distinguishes himself with a faux-bubbly Rhodes piano solo, treble turned up to the point of distortion; guitarist Dane Johnson takes it out with some gritty metallic blues.

On one hand, the title track is your basic musical dialectic: bad cop vs. good cop, Jason stalking his unsuspecting prey. On the other, it gives you pause: the band hold their sarcasm close enough in check, and dive into the menace with so much relish, that they just might be serious after all. It starts off as a menacingly altered bolero, then the scenes shift through a balmy ranchera, cornpone C&W and a twinkling Hawaiian tableau. Meanwhile, the bolero theme winds up, then winds down, Rick Parker’s looming trombone and Johnson’s clenched-teeth monster surf guitar front and center.

Lola Gotta Gun is a very clever, Lynchian dub reggae mashup of Lola and Happiness Is a Warm Gun. La Girafe is a showcase for Beninghove’s subtle side, which is ironic considering how over-the-top cartoonish this loping, happy-go-lucky theme is. The best joke is cruel, it’s in French and it’s too good to give away here

Roebuck – a shout-out to the Staples Singers’ patriarch Roebuck Staples – opens as a simmering, misterioso Quincy Jones summer night theme and builds to a methodical but very uneasy sway on the wings of Johnson’s dark blues lines and Beninghove’s shivery red-neon tenor work. The careening, self-explanatory Elephant Stampede echoes the band’s expertly buffoonish Zohove album, a collection of instrumental Led Zep covers.

The lone cover here is a pretty icky Neil Diamond ditty that other bands have tried to make noir out of. It’s not up to the level of Beninghove’s originals, although it does bring to mind a teenage, trenchcoated Diamond lingering outside the girls’ yeshiva somewhere in Midwood, staring at a nine-year-old and thinking to himself, girl, you’ll be a woman soon enough. The album winds up with Terminator, which sounds like Nine Inch Nails taking a stab at a New Orleans second-line groove, as funny as it is ugly. Much as we’re still in April, there’s no way anybody’s going to release a more cinematically entertaining album than this in 2016.

Last night, it was viscerally painful to walk out on the band as they launched into the lickety-split monster surf of H-Bomb, considering how expertly feral their set had been up to that point. Has the leader of any band ever to play Otto’s Shrunken Head ever instructed his players to pay attention to volume and dynamics? Beninghove did, and the crew – this time including bass powerhouse Ezra Gale, guitarist Sean Kiely and drummer Sean Baltazor – delivered, through a scorchingly psychedelic set including ferociously expansive takes of macabre, chromatically-charged surf classics like Surf ‘n Turk and Surfin’ Satie as well as a trippy version of Lola Gotta Gun and an amped-up roadhouse blues-infused Roebuck.

Kelley McRae Brings Her Catchy, Lyrical Acoustic Americana to the Lower East

Kelley McRae is a darling of the Paste Magazine set. Aw, good grief, you say. Do we really need another fresh-faced rich white girl faking her way through a formerly blue-collar sound that’s been done to death? Actually, with her airy, unadorned soprano and catchy tunesmithing, McRae is the real deal, bringing some rare depth to the newschool Americana genre. She’s got a new record, The Wayside – her fifth – streaming at Spotify and a show at the big room at the Rockwood on May 10 at 9. Cover is $10.

The core of the band on the album comprises McRae’s guitarist husband Matt Castelein, with Jon Andersen on pedal steel and lapsteel and Spencer Caper on violin, mandolin and bouzouki. The opening track, Land of the Noonday Sun sets the stage over an elegant weave of fingerpicking:

Time goes by like a dream
No matter how hard you run
Some things are better left unsaid
Some things are better left undone

Driven by Castelein’s punchy dobro, the surprisingly hard-charging newgrass shuffle Hard Night has a full band with bass, drums and organ; it reminds of Jenifer Jackson‘s latest adventures in Americana. “It’s just one of those days,” McRae sighs with a wounded resignation as the bittersweetly swaying, subtly Tex-Mex tinged If You Need Me gets underway. The plainspoken Reach You offers a stark, telling look at how you can never count on someone staying on the same track with you: ” Too many nights feeling brokedown and bruised,” as McRae puts it..

The album’s title cut rises toward an unexpectedly ornate, majestic peak, awash in lingering steel guitar over a big thumping beat. The album’s best track is the broodingly scrambling Oklahoma shuffle Red Dirt Road, propelled by more crescendoing Castelein dobro work. By contrast, Andersen’s keening steel fuels A Long Time, a bitter lament for years wasted waiting for dashed hopes to come true.

With McRae’s high lonesome avian metaphors, Rare Bird offers a bittersweet shout-out to a restlessly insatiable type. Driven by Castelein’s psychedelic acoustic fretwork, Tell It Again looks back to 70s Britfolk. The album closes with Rose, a Willie Nelson-esque, jazz-tinged lullaby and then the nocturnal ballad All the Days That Have Come Before, McRae’s narrator taking a decisive step away from the past. It’s an unselfconsciously intense way to wind up this mix of vividly melancholy tunesmithing.

Kiran Ahluwalia Brings Her Entrancingly Fun Mix of Punjabi and African Sounds to Joe’s Pub

From singer Kiran Ahluwalia‘s albums of raptly hypnotic, mysttically poetic mashups of Pakistani ghazals, Punjabi pop and Malian desert rock, you might not expect her to be as fun onstage as she is. It’s hard to believe that the unselfconsciously captivating bandleader’s most recent New York show was at Madison Square Park last summer. Out in front of a jangly, purposefully propulsive four-piece band, she spun and lept and got a sleepy afterwork crowd on their feet. “I can always tell when there are Punjabis in the audience,” she grinned, feeding off the energy of the dancers as much as they were feeding off hers. She’s bringing her mix of thoughtful, paradigm-shifting originals and reinventions of centuries-old material to Joe’s Pub on May 6 at 7 PM; adv tix are $20.

She opened that summer show with Sanata: Stillness, the title track to her latest album, a showcase for her strikingly direct vocals as well as her husband Rez Abbasi’s command of slinky Malian desert rock guitar, with a hypnotically circling accordion solo from Will Holshouser over the clip-clop rhythm section. It’s her Uncomfortably Numb: stillness can be emptiness, a feeling she emphatically did not want to revisit, personally or artistically, she said. The group followed a joyous clave bounce on the catchy number afterward, Abbasi playing bright upper-register clusters that were part soukous, part Mike Bloomfiield.

Ahluwalia’s melismatic leaps and bounds gave extra spice to a rhythmically tricky one-chord vamp. Jaane Na (Nobody Knows), the lickety-split number after that, was part uneasy ghazal, part psychedelic soul, an exorcism of personal demons, Abbasi’s rapidfire, bluesy lines bringing to mind Jerry Garcia circa Terrapin Station (i.e., good). Then they pounced their way through a shapeshifting, epically catchy take of the classic Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan hit Mustt Mustt, adding a loping, resilient Tinariwen edge.

Aluwahlia brought things down with a pensive ballad that began with a moody solo vocal intro, then went back to catchy, upbeat, major-key melismatics. She teased with meters, sliced and diced choruses in her meticulously modulated voice, airing out her spun-steel, reflecting-pool lower register as the band pulsed and sparkled behind her. After a detour into wary, grey-sky south Asian jazz, she closed the set with a joyously jumping Punjabi pop hit and encored with a swaying number that built from an opiated Moonlight Mile strum to an anthemic intensity. It’s a good bet that she’ll do a lot of this at Joe’s Pub.

Pierre de Gaillande Brings His Edgy, Hilarious English Translations of Georges Brassens Classics Back to Barbes

In the New York art-rock demimonde, Pierre de Gaillande has a resume second to none, first leading the darkly ornate Melomane and then the Snow with the similarly talented Hilary Downes. Since then, he’s dedicated himself to an ongoing chamber chanson project, orchestrating and translating Georges Brassens songs. Brassens had a long career as a gadfly and thorn in the side of the censors on French radio, from the 40s through the 70s. Every time he’d get banned, he’d write something even more mercilessly funny and smutty. He was populist to the core and is still iconic there. De Gaillande’s translations are meticulous, maintaining Brassens’ gritty humor, crushing sarcasm and even the same rhyme schemes, in English, no small achievement. Like this blog, De Gaillande makes Barbes his home base; he’s playing there this Friday night, April 29 at 8.

Catching his show there back in October was a lot of fun. It was a typical performance: he played his signature hollowbody Gibson, backed by an inspired chamber pop band with violin, bass,.drums, accordion and clarinet. As usual, there were also a couple of special guests, one a woman who sang a spare, brief acoustic number and the other a French hip-hop artist who reworked Brassens into a droll, slangy rap.

De Giallande’s voice has deepened over the years: he’s never sung better. He opened with the snidely waltzing, anti-bourgeous broadside Philistines, then had a good time with The Princess and the Troubadour. a jailbait swing tune where the narrator tells the fifteen-year-old girl that he ‘Doesn’t have the makings of a pedophle,” and doesn’t want to spend the rest of his days in the joint. While De Gaillande has a couple of albums of Brassens songs out, he’s always adding new material, and some of the best ones in this set were new additions: a jaunty, southwestern gothic-tinged waltz and a hilarious drinking song. Nobody drinks writes drinking songs like the French, and Brassens was especially good at it.

There were also plenty of familiar treats from the De Gaillande/Brassens repertoire, including the hilariously irreverent Don Juan, a twisted salute to people who chase…um…undesirable partners. The group also swung their way through I Made Myself Small, which although Brassens dedicated it to his longtime girlfriend, his narrator comes across as completely pussywhipped. De Gaillande alternated English and French verses in a similarly amusing portrait of a lightning rod salesman (Freudian – get it?) making the rounds of Parisian housewives. And he reminded that things aren’t much different now than they were in 1954 when Brassens wrote Public Benches and its sardonic portrait of hypocrites, “People putting other people down for doing what they wish they had the nerve to do. In other words, Republicans,” he grinned. The group wound up the set with a lickety-split, bouncy number fueled by a fiery clarinet solo. It should be fun to see what new gems De Gaillande will unveil this time around.

Alsarah & the Nubatones Put on a Transcendent, Relevant Dance Party in Flushing

If the 7 train had been running between Queens and Manhattan Saturday night, “East African retro pop” stars Alsarah & the Nubatones would have sold out Flushing Town Hall. Even with the transit nightmare, they came awfully close. By the time the stragglers had found their way to Northern Boulevard, there were only a few balcony seats left. It was a dance party, but it was also a profoundly relevant performance, shifting between hypnotic African grooves and otherworldly, microtonally-tinged Middle Eastern-flavored tonalities.

The group opened with a lingering, suspenseful solo by oudist Brandon Terzic. A student of the late, great Haig Magnoukian, his mentor and teacher who preceded him in this band,  he delivered spiky, sometimes carefully modulated, sometimes deliriously untethered spirals of edgy Middle Eastern modal riffage. Overhead, Alsarah bullt to a powerful, wordless wail, louder than she would ever get through the rest of a spellbinding, dynamic performance. Singing mostly in Arabic, the Kartoum-born bandleader voiced the disillusion, and anguish, and resilience of the Nubian people, thousands of whom were dislocated in massive Egyptian dambuilding projects in the early 60s.

From there drummer Ramy El Aaser led the group into a slinky, catchy, uneasily shuffling number packed with split-second call-and-response between Alsarah, her strong, similarly nuanced harmony singer and the rest of the band. Five minutes into the show, and they had a clapalong going; it wouldn’t be long before people were dancing in the aisles. If there ever was a case for the universal appeal and relevance of music from Egypt, this was it.

The “Nubian national anthem,” as Alsarah put it, turned out to be a catchy, circling number. basically a two-chord jam of sorts. Terzic opened The Desert Road with a rustically flurrying solo echoing the blues; a powerful reminder of the blues’ African roots. For that matter, the same could be said for El Aaser’s hard-hitting but nimble clave groove, another African invention. And a bit later on, Alsarah speculated how an old folk tune about maidens being given to the Nile River god might have resulted in mermaid children. “We Nubians gave you civilization…and we gave you mermaids,” she laughed.

Bassist Mawuena Kodjovi methodically built a wrenchingly mournful solo during one of the night’s most haunting moments. Alsarah distinguished herself with a couple of originals which were the arguably the best songs of the night, comtemplating “How governments fail us,” as she put it. The first followed a restless pulse through a “Get up, get up!” revolutionary refrain. The most dynamically crescendoing number of the night was Land of Honey, a moody contemplation of finding a new life in exile that took on special relevance in this era of refugees pouring out of Syria. The crowd went crazy for an exuberantly witty dumbek solo from El Aasser; after almost two hours onstage, the group wound up their second set with a driving habibi pop number and encored with a similarly kinetic, hypnotic dance tune

Adventurous listeners lucky enough to make it to Flushing Town Hall for this show might be interested in May 14, 7 PM concert there by the rustic, otherworldly Ba Ban Chinese Music Society; tix are $16.

Tuneful Heavy Psych Epics from River Cult

River Cult is the latest project of guitarist Sean Forlenza, late of epically intense, cinematic heavy rockers Eidetic Seeing. That band really liked long songs, a trait that Forlenza has carried even further on his new band’s debut ep, streaming at Bandcamp.The power trio builds a roaring, enveloping, psychedelic envelope of sound that’s a lot more propulsive than your typical stoner metal or postrock band.

The opening track,. Temps Perdu is a pounding mashup of the early Dream Syndicate, Daydream Nation-era Sonic Youth and My Bloody Valentine. As long as this song is – just a tad under ten minutes – it’s awfully catchy. Forlenza’s reverb-cloud solo slowly works toward a frantic shriek over Anthony Mendolia’s growling bass and drummer Tav Palumbo’s matter-of-fact, hard-hitting sway. From there they segue through a hypnotically looping outro to Shadow Out Of Time, Forlenza using his slide, again with a ton of reverb over a slow, loping beat. Tempos shift, they hit a headless horseman gallop, riffs echoing Sleep or vintage Sabbath, then finally take it out in a morass of bleeding amps and a twisted kaleidoscope of sound, like scanning the radio dial but not pulling a single clear signal.

The final cut is A Drop In The Ocean – gee, wonder what THAT one is about, huh? Interestingly, it’s the most straightforward number here: at its molten core, it’s an Abbey Road Beatles dirge as a vintage 70s stoner group like Poobah might have done it. Good music for slipping away from reality on a gloomy Sunday.

Linda Draper’s New Album Adds to Her Hall of Fame Credentials

It’s time to head down to the quarry and hammer out a pedestal for Linda Draper. Eight albums into her career, not one of them anything less than brilliant: Richard Thompson, Elvis Costello, Steve Wynn, Aimee Mann brilliant. Draper is in their league both as a tunesmith and lyricist, and she can sing circles around all of them. And she’s explored a lot of styles over the past fifteen years or so: straightforward acoustic pop, surrealistic psychedelia, Nashville gothic and now a richly tuneful jangle and clang. Producer Matt Keating gets major props for making a big rock record out of Draper’s latest album, Modern Day Decay. It hasn’t hit the web yet, although you can hear a lot of it at her album release show on April 29 at 7 PM at the big room at the Rockwood.

Draper had the good sense to get the most out of Keating on this album. It’s arguably Draper’s strongest release to date, both lyrically and musically, and he really takes it to the next level, both as lead guitarist and keyboardist. Recorded mostly live in the studio in a single whirlwind 48-hour session, the songs have a bristling intensity, Draper’s strong but nuanced mezzo-soprano anchored by bassist Jeff Eyrich and drummer Eric Puente.

The gorgeously anthemic title track opens the album. With the layers of twelve-string guitar over piano and organ, it sounds like the Church with a woman out front:

In a world made for the masses
It ain’t easy to see
It all through rose-colored glasses
You know the thorns wait patiently
…Some say time is all we need
To heed, no matter the relevance
Or pick at the scab until it bleeds…

The matter-of-fact Keep Your Head Up has tinges of psychedelia and C&W and opens with a wry shout-out to Mary Magdalene. I’t s a prime example of Draper at her witheringly lyrical best:

We’re under the gun until one day we’re done…
Get on the latest medication
Join the rest of the brainwashed nation
Airport security, a little radiation
Stand in line, take a number
Don’t blame the stars for your lack of wonder
Like a wild tiger turned into a fur coat
We howl at the moon until we lose the fight

True Enough is another catchy, richly jangly 12-string guitar anthem, a rugged individualist trying to keep her cool under pressure:

Gone are the days of the heat and the haze
That once bled my eyes dry
They sensed in the place by the cold golden gaze
That a love almost passed me by
It’s just a blip on the screen, a switch in the scene
The rest is a big fat lie
Why can’t they just take me as I am…

Put Love In has some unexpected hip-hop tinges in the lyric over an uneasy acoustic-electric backdrop. The catchy, swaying Take Your Money and Run works on a whole slew of levels. On the surface, it’s an escape anthem of sorts:

I pawned my ring for everything and said let it ride
Now I’m here to tell you you reap what you sow
You sold me out, now you’d better let me go
Cause I’m done, all right, but I did it with love
Head for the hills tonight, no heaven above
Can stop me now
There’s nothing to slow down
There’s nothing to stop you
It doesn’t matter where you come from
That doesn’t mean that’s all you have to become
You have so much more love in your heart
Than the sum of your parts
So take your money and run

A slow, organ-infused soul ballad, the nonchalantly cajoling Lose with Me brings to mind Jenifer Jackson. “All my heroes are long gone, or sold their souls to some reality show,” Draper muses.

Awash in lingering, echoing psychedelic guitars, Burn Your Bridges sounds like the Church doing a late Beatles folk-pop number: “All hands on deck for the shipwreck, brace yourselves,” Draper warns.

Pedestal takes a careeningly successful detour into rockabilly: for that matter, it might be the most lyrically sophisticated rockabilly tune ever written:

Everyone’s listening to nobody else
The symphony sounds fine on the train
As we keep moving round in vain
Regurgitating joy and pain

Nashville builds from a stark, spare acoustic intro to a mighty cinematic sweep:

Into the evening
Out of my mind
What you call believing
I call dying
Can’t you see the bags under my eyes
Or the rags that I wore in disguise
The latest fashion, greatest curse
I don’t know which one should be worse….
Like cattle they packed us
Onto the bus
Eleven hours later we were in Nashville
The flames and the smoke followed me here
Ten years ago just seemed to disappear
Now I’m rnnning from the wind
‘Cause I know how fast it can blow
There ain’t gonna be a next time
All we’ve got is today
And all I see in my mind
Keeps driving away

The album winds up with a waltz, Good As New, another individualist’s manifesto

There’s nothing wrong if you don’t belong…
I spend my lifetime, I’ve made it a habit
Of staying on the outside, now why should I quit
“That’s just your way of hiding,” you say
You know, ’cause you see yourself in me

Just on lyrics alone – is Draper quotable, or what? – this is a strong contender for best release of 2016.

Champian Fulton Brings a Subtly Victorious Take on Dinah Washington to the West Village

On one hand, would you ever want to hear anybody other than Dave Brubeck play Take Five? OK, maybe the surf rock version by Mike Rimbaud. On the other hand, there’s the argument that jazz, like classical or folk music, is a repertoire that any artist with the requisite talent ought to sink their teeth into. Which is where Champian Fulton is coming from on her new album, After Dark, a Dinah Washington tribute streaming at Spotify. Fulton will be playing that material and more in a rare duo show with bassist David Williams at Mezzrow on April 26 at 7:30 PM; cover is $20.

Covering material so closely associated with such an iconic figure is a potential minefield, but Fulton meets that challenge head-on, in a performance that’s respectful but not reverential. On one hand, Fulton has assimilated Washington’s style – those coy little swoops up into head voice, the dips into feline lows, and the spaces between the notes – to the point where there are are many places on this album where, if you didn’t know who the singer was, you would assume it was Washington. On the other, Fulton puts her own stamp on these songs. The new album is a mostly trio affair, with Williams and drummer Lewis Nash as rhythm section plus her dad Stephen Fulton on trumpet and flugelhorn on a handful of numbers.

Another way Fulton differentiates her versions from the originals is that she’s as nuanced and expressive a pianist as she is a singer. Lots of iconic tracks here, beginning with a slowly swinging, uncluttered, gently seductive take of Ain’t Misbehavin’, the elder Fulton’s gentle, smoky muted lines in contrast with the younger’s nonchalant good cheer. That Old Feeling has even more subtlety but also exuberant wit, right from the LOL intro. How does she tackle Washington’s signature song, What a Difference a Day Makes? She lets Nash give it a masterfully hushed, bossa tinge, her piano as spacious as her vocals, a lot more low-key than the original.

Blue Skies gets a rubato intro with a few wisps from Williams’ bow, the trumpet adding a New Orleans jauntiness as the swing kicks in, up to a considered, purposeful piano solo. The group does a perfectly acceptable job with Keeping Out of Mischief Now; on the other hand, it’s sort of redundant, Ain’t Misbehavin’, round two.

A Bad Case of the Blues is a showcase for the bandleader’s elegantly expansive command of that style on the piano as well as on vocals. Travelin’ Light makes a striking contrast between a rather stern, embittered backdrop and a distantly embittered, matter-of-fact approach to a sad storyline, the band picking it up, wryly trading eights as they wind it up to the final chorus. Mad About the Boy is the most stunning reinvention here, part Brecht/Weill, part Beethoven.

All of Me may be the Hotel California of vocal jazz, but the singer makes it worthwhile, with a bass/vocal intro that looks straight back to Sarah Vaughan and Joe Comfort. Give a close listen to the piano solo on slow, slinky version of Baby Won’t You Please Come Home: through the first verse, Fulton voices the lyrics emotion for emotion with her fingers, phrase by phrase, a neat trick. A steady, slow, vocal-less solo piano Midnight Stroll makes an apt closing track, another showcase for her purist command of the blues.

Throughout these songs, what’s most striking is how much care and attention Fulton gives every line, every word: she really sells the lyrics, which isn’t easy because, let’s face it, some of them would sound awfully prosaic delivered by someone who didn’t give a damn. Fulton moves effortlessly and vividly from delight, to wistfulness, to wounded angst in a matter of seconds and makes it seem completely natural, the work of a deep and insightful individual and a rare force on both the keys and the mic.

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