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Gato Loco’s Perilous Mambos and Noir Cinematics Capture These Dark Times

Perilous times, perilous measures, perilous bands. In an era in New York when seemingly half the population  doesn’t know if they’ll have a roof over the heads a month from now, it’s only logical to expect that the music coming out of this city at this moment would reflect that unease. Many of New York’s elite bands and artists – Karla Rose & the Thorns, Big Lazy, Rachelle Garniez, Beninghove’s Hangmen across the river, and now Gato Loco – speak for this new Age of Anxiety. Of all those bands, Gato Loco might be the loudest and most explosive.

Most bands pump up the volume with loud guitars, and Gato Loco have Lily Maase to bring that firestorm. But more than anything, Gato Loco’s sound is an update on the oldschool mambo orchestras of the 50s, emphasis on low brass. Frontman Stefan Zeniuk can be found on bass sax, baritone sax, and, ironically, mostly on tenor sax these days. “Tuba Joe” Exley brings the funk and the funny stuff (is there a tuba player alive without a sense of humor? Perish the thought). Trombonist Tim Vaughan takes over front and center since he’s often the guy with the most dynamic range; likewise, drummer Kevin Garcia supplies just as much color as groove, on his hardware and rims and cymbals and pretty much everywhere that can be hit.

Like so many of New York’s elite, Gato Loco’s home base these days is Barbes. Last month, they played a Wiliamsburg gig that gave them the benefit of a big stage, which was fun considering that it afforded them a lot more space to stretch out, yet didn’t compromise the intimate feel of their Park Slope gigs.

A tense, syncopated stomp introduced the show. Slowly, the horns converged with a similarly dark riff that suddenly flared into a classic Ethiopian tune: a noir latin spin on Musikawi Silt, an iconic Ethiopiques hit from the 1970s. Trumpeter Jackie Coleman fired off a plane-crash slide, then the band hit a monster-movie mambo pulse. That was just the first eight minutes or so.

Maase anchored the next song with her shadowy Brazilian riffs, a blazing Lynchian bossa of sorts, horns leaping from the shadows like flames on an old building whose landlord finally decided to show the remaining tenants the Bronx, 1970s style, the guitarist putting a tighter spin on spiraling Carlos Santana psychedelia. The highlight of the set came early with The Lower Depths, a slow, murderously slinky, blackly backlit number: the striptease theme from hell, essentially, something that wouldn’t be out of place in the Beninghove’s Hangmen catalog. Flickers of Lynchian dub and 60s Quincy Jones noir soul cinematics appeared before all hell broke loose, Vaughan contributing a long, cloudbusting major-on-minor solo. Zeniuk has been writing a lot of theatre music lately, and this is a prime example.

Likewise, with the set’s next song, the group worked a serpentine path upward through brooding exchanges of voices over Garcia’s nebulous woodblock-fueled groove, chaos threatening to break out every other measure. It was the sonic equivalent of a Sequieros mural. From there they hit a hint of dub reggae on their way to a brisk clave stomp and then more Ethiopiques fueled by Coleman’s tersely joyous blues and the bandleader’s cynically fleeting tenor sax.

Tuelo & Her Cousins opened the night with a rather epic set that drew equally on jaunty, jangly late 80s British guitar pop, oldschool soul and the exuberant, dynamic, socially aware frontwoman’s South African heritage. They’re at Union Hall on Sept 9 at 8 PM; cover is $8.

A Thrilling Centerpiece to This Year’s Drive East Festival of Indian Music

High-voltage Indian vocal and instrumental group the Navatman Music Collective played one of the year’s most exhilarating concerts as part of this year’s Drive East Festival last night at LaMaMa, a sold-out performance in celebration of the release of their new album An Untimely Joy. Although each member got at least a couple of turns out front to dazzle the crowd with their voices and their chops, their de facto main soloist, Roopa Mahadevan, reaffirmed her status as not only one of the most spellbinding singers in New York but in the entire world. With her pulsing, minutely inflected melismas, powerful low register and the occasional dramatic flight upward, she displayed thrilling command of classical carnatic styles from throughout the ages, in addition to ghazals and theatre music.

The rest of the group pretty much did the same. What was most striking right off the bat was how far they’re pushing the envelope. They opened counterintuitively with the kind of coda typically associated with a dance theatre piece and concluded with what Mahadevan said was one of the alltime bom diggity ragas, and she wasn’t kidding. The strong baritones of Vignesh Ravichandran and Kaushik Ravi anchored the music, usually hovering an octave beneath the kaleidoscopically timbred voices of the women: Mahadevan, Kamini Dandapani, Bhargavi Khamakshivalli, Prettha Raghu and Shradda Balasubramaniam. Kavi Srinivasaragavan negotiated the music’s tricky rhythmic shifts on mridangam, while 17-year-old violin prodigy Harini Rajashekar wove meticulous, often plaintive lines amid the dynamic, often joyously dancing melodies.

Perhaps ironically, the night’s most riveting moments came not during the most ecstatic peaks but in a brooding, low-key mini-epic that Mahadevan began slowly and plaintively. Tali Rubinstein’s flute spun eerily baroque-tinged lines against Camila Celin’s stark sarod while guest tabla player Ehren Hanson engaged Srinivasaragavan in some subtly wry rhythmic jousting.

The early part of the show quickly rose from a raptly enveloping medieval piece to a new arrangement of a classic carnatic theme featuring some stunningly unexpected harmonies and intricate counterpoint making its way throughout the choir, akin to a mashup of Thomas Tallis with classic Indian themes. The night’s most epic work was a torrentially rising and falling new piece by Ravichandrana nd Mahadevan, featuring the full ensemble along with Celin on acoustic guitar. There was also an ecstatic raga made famous as a film theme, opening with a stunningly dynamic, melismatic solo vocal from Mahadevan, along with a stately ghazal with Kamaikshivalli taking the lead.

They brought everything full circle at the end. Hearing the voices in unison delivering the kind of shiveringly precise, minutely wavelike phrases commonly associated with the sitar reminded how carnatic music is the foundation of the Indian classical canon. Long before there were sitars, people were doing the same thing with their voices, which is actually more physically demanding than merely playing it on a fingerboard. That this group challenge themselves to take this music to yet another level testifies to their collective fearlessness and irrepressible joie de vivre.

The Drive East Festival continues through Sunday at LaMaMa, 74 E 4th St. between Bowery and 2nd Ave. Tonight’s performances begin at 6 PM with carnatic instrumental ensemble Akshara, featuring sensationally eclectic violinist Trina Basu.

The Chiara String Quartet Play Bartok By Heart: A Harrowing, Landmark Achievement

There’s an argument that Bela Bartok’s string quartets are the holy grail of that repertoire. Sure, Beethoven wrote more of them, and so did Shostakovich, and others, but in terms of unrelenting, harrowing intensity, Bartok is unsurpassed. And the Bartok cycle is as daunting to play as it is darkly exhilarating to hear. On one hand, that the Chiara String Quartet would be able to play all six Bartok quartets from memory isn’t as staggering a feat as it might seem, since plenty of other world-class ensembles could do that if they put the time into it. It’s how this ensemble does it that makes their forthcoming double album Bartok By Heart, and their continued performances of these works, such a landmark achievement.

As Chiara cellist Gregory Beaver has explained, the group’s purpose in memorizing all this sometimes cruelly difficult material is to bring the composer’s themes – many of them inspired by or pilfered from North African, Middle Eastern and Romany music – back to their roots. In the process, the group discovered how conversational – some might say folksy – much of it actually turns out to be. New York audiences are in for a treat when the quartet play all six pieces over two nights to celebrate the album’s release at National Sawdust. The August 30, 7 PM concert features Quartets Nos. 1, 3 and 5; the following night, August 31 features Nos. 2, 4 and 6. Advance tix are $20, and considering how expensive chamber music of this caliber has become in this city, that’s a bargain.

How do these recordings stand out from the rest of the pack? In general, the convivial quality of the composer’s counterpoint – echoing the call-and-response of so many of the original folk themes – comes to the forefront. Dynamics are also front and center, but this interpretation is especially noteworthy for how vigorous the quieter passages are. Bartok’s later quartets, in particular, rely heavily on all sorts of extended technique, high harmonics, ghostly glissandos and sardonically plucky pizzicato, and the group really sink their teeth into them. Passages like the second movement of Quartet No. 3, with all its sepulchral strolls, rises from unease to genuinely murderous heights. Yet, when they have to play their cards closer to the vest, as in the slithery foreshadowing of the twisted dance that develops in the first movement of No. 5, the ensemble revels in that mystery as well.

Emotional content becomes more inescapable within the context of interplay between individual instrumental voices. Bartok saw himself as an exile, and was horror-stricken by the rise of fascism in Europe in the wake of World War I. So it’s no surprise how much of a sense of alienation, abandonment and loss – from Bartok’s point of view, culturally as well as personally – permeates these performances. That, and a grim humor: for example, the wide-angle vibrato of violinists Rebecca Fischer and Hyeyung Julie Yoon against the plaintive presence of Jonah Sirota’s viola, as they bring to life the the anguished, embittered Quartet No. 1 and its unvarnished narrative of love gone hopelessly off the rails. As underscored in the liner notes by Gabriela Lena Frank  a longtime Chiara collaborator – all this makes the ensemble’s take on this music every bit as relevant now as it was during the waves of displacement, and nationalist terror, and genocide that coincided with the Great War that was supposed to end them all.

Kedar Naphade Opens This Year’s Drive East Festival with Elegance and Purposeful Virtuosity

Before launching rather suspensefully into an evening raga to open this year’s Drive East Festival of Indian music last night at LaMaMa, harmonium player Kedar Naphade cautioned the crowd that things might get a little uneasy. And they did. Early on in his opening alap (taqsim, or solo improvisation), it was almost as if he was playing major on minor, a hallowed trope in western horror movie music. He’d explained that since evening ragas reflect a transitional time of day, those melodies tend to bristle with disquieting accidentals.

Much as it might seen unusual to open a weeklong celebration of Indian music and dance with a classical harmonium concert, instead of, say, Bollywood or bhangra, it was a counterintuitive success for the festival’s organizers. The show wasn’t sold out, but there was a good crowd, an impressively diverse mix of the many cultures that continue to defy the odds to make this city such a rich cultural melting pot.

Naphade was joined by tabla player Dibyarka Chaterjee, whose elegantly pointillistic phrases somewhat ironically brought a calming, hypnotic effect to the music when he first joined in, along with Rohan Prabhudesai, a fellow harmonium player moonlighting on swaramandal and adding the occasional starry glissando to drive a phrase home.

While Naphade has a lightning right hand, he took his time, matter-of-factly building to where he could ornament the music with some spectacularly rapidfire trills, playfully balletesque spirals and long cascades. He and Chaterjee traded solos as the music rose and fell, at one point reaching a groove that would have been a perfectly solid swing jazz shuffle. That long, serpentine road eventually led to a vivid series of variations on an enigmatic fanfare riff of sorts. It was only at this point that Naphade introduced any harmony or chords, but even there kept them terse and unresolved.

The trio wound up the performance with a couple of more recent works. Introducing the irst, Naphade poignantly related how his great-uncle, whom he first knew as a shy, retiring family elder, was actually an important figure in Indian music, a pioneer who helped introduce western orchestration in the 1950s. That number turned out to be a broodingly swaying, chromatically charged clip-clop proto Bollywood groove punctuated by lively leaping phrases. The night’s final piece was variations on a bouncy, acerbically spiraling musical theatre tune from Naphade’s home state in India, Maharashtra, dating from around the time that audiences were abandoning the music hall for the movie theatre with the rise of Bollywood. The only thing that could have made this concert more interesting or fun would have been more music.

The Drive East Festival continues through this Sunday, August 28 at LaMaMa, 74 E 4th St. Tonight’s lineup begins with a dance performance by Sahasra Sambamoorthi backed by a live orchestra; tix are available here. And speaking of tix, this blog still has a few free tickets to the festival to give away; the shows and information on how to claim your prize(s) are listed here.

Shelley Thomas Channels an Entire Bulgarian Vocal Choir on Her Stunning New Solo Album

Shelley Thomas‘ debut solo album, Joy – streaming at her music page– is as exhilarating to listen to as it is a towering display of vocal prowess. Thomas is not only one of New York’s great voices; she’s one of the world’s most highly sought-after interpreters of Middle Eastern and Balkan music. What’s most impressive about this album is how she multitracks her voice, essentially becoming a one-woman Bulgarian vocal choir, a self-contained Le Mystere des Voix Bulgares or Black Sea Hotel (of which she is a member). As she explains in the album’s liner notes, Bulgarian music is “a vast and exciting repertoire of wildly diverse regional styles, dialects and ornaments, rich in history, storytelling and feeling.” That’s an understatement. Thomas has such vast range, formidable technique and minutely nuanced command of microtones that she can do it all. The result is rapture that sometimes borders on terror. Olivier Messiaen understood that; so does Thomas.

Beyond the otherworldly, microtonal beauty of the arrangements, sometimes what’s most striking about these seventeen songs is their surrealism. Other times it’s the subtext, as in the album’s distantly plaintive, solo vocal opening track, where a girl goes out into the woods, ostensibly to pick flowers. But what she’s really up to is searching for her missing brother, a freedom figther against the local tyrant, or Ottoman invaders.

Most of the other tracks are packed with the close harmonies typically associated with the Bulgarian vocal tradition. Thomas juxtaposes a hypnotically enveloping field holler of sorts with a bride-price diptych full of the echo effects typically associated with mountain music. She channels the wistfulness of a girl beseeching her mother not to marry her off before she’s been able to enjoy a bit more of her carefree childhood, and the bounciness of a tune that belies its macabre lyric about a construction worker who falls victim to a murderous prank. Thomas delivers the album’s celebratory title track as a brisk but stately pavane of sorts, by contrast to Black Sea Hotel’s full-throttle version.

The rest of the album is just as colorful. Brides are sought after again and again; grooms are rejected (usually because they’re too impoverished) and accepted once in awhile. An abusive boyfriend runs up against karmic payback; another hothead meets his match with a girl who wants to tie him up, yikes! Thomas’ lush, hushed reinvention of Mesechinko Ljo is simply exquisite, one part Arvo Part, one part African-American gospel. The next-to-last track is even more epic. Many of the remaining songs are very short, clocking in at barely two minutes; in each case, the emotion in Thomas’ vocals, sometimes tender, sometimes wounded, often uneasy, transcends linguistic limitations. You don’t need to speak Bulgarian to be entranced by this music: it’s one of the half-dozen best albums of 2016. Thomas’ fascinating liner notes include both the original Bulgarian lyrics and English translations as well as historical and musicological background.

Erudite Piano Luminary Fred Hersch Winds Up His Stand at an Iconic Spot Tonight

August in New York: what a beautiful time to be here, isn’t it? Sure, it’s hot, but the hordes of recent invaders have all gone off to the Hamptons, or wherever they stash their inheritances – or simply back to mom and dad in Bloomfield Hills or Lake Oswego. It didn’t used to be this way; then again, it didn’t used to be this hot. Let’s enjoy it while we can, shall we? For those of us in the mood to revel in a cosmopolitan Old New York experience, pianist Fred Hersch is winding up his stand at the Village Vanguard tonight, August 21 with his long-running trio, bassist John Hebert and drummer Eric McPherson. Sets are at 8:30 and 10:30 PM; cover is $30 and includes a drink; today being Sunday, there won’t be the usual crowds of tourists making their pilgrimage here

Hersch’s aptly titled latest album is Sunday Night at the Vanguard (due out momentarily and therefore not yet at Spotify). It’s a similarly lyrical follow-up to his lavish 2012 Alive at the Vanguard double album. This one is as perennially fresh, and bursting with joie de vivre, and spontaneity, and erudition as anything the guy’s ever recorded. Even in the most rigorous, uppermost echelons of jazz, Hersch’s craftsmanship stands out. Is he a NEA Jazz Master yet? OK, he’s still a little young for that.

That this album is a typical Hersch performance, not just in terms of the track-by-track, speaks to that. Hersch’s trio has a rare chemistry that reflects years of long nights on the road as well as its interweave of personalities, Hersch both sage and wit, Hebert the freewheeling groovemeister and McPherson the king of subtlety. The three ease their way in with a midtempo take of a rare Rodgers and Hammerstein number, A Cockeyed Optimist; McPherson’s almost impreceptibly crescendoing shuffle drive is fascinating to hear unfolding. Likewise, his misterioso cymbal bell intro, in tandem with Hersch’s minimalist misterioso approach, ramps up the suspense on the evening’s first original, Serpentine, an intricately interwoven portrait of an enigmatic Ornette Coleman associate, part Monk, part baroque, with a ghostly bass-and-drums interlude at the center..

The Optimum Thing also echoes Monk, Hersch putting an uneasily playful spin on a series of Irving Berlin changes, an acerbically swinging blend of quaint and off-center; how well the pianist manages to disguise what his bandmates are up to is pricelessly funny. Calligram (for Benoit Delbecq), a shout-out to his individualistic French colleague pairs the steady, starlit anchor of the bass and drums against Herseh’s occasionally wry, deep-space explorations. Then the three pick up the pace again with the tersely catchy, allusively latin-tinged postbop of Blackwing Palomino.

Hersch slows down the Beatles’ For No One to reveal its inner cavatina, then makes an eerily stairstepping music-box theme out of it. The three do Kenny Wheeler’s Everybody’s Song But My Own as a jaunty, pointillistic, altered cha-cha, then give Jimmy Rowles’ gothic jazz favorite The Peacocks an epic, dynamically shifting intensity, from the bandleader’s moody solo intro to a white-knuckle intensity over Hebert’s stern pulse. The trio close the set by swinging through the almost cruel, knowing ironies of Monk’s We See. The encore is a solo take of Hersch’s favorite closing. bemedictine ballad, Valentine. If there’s anybody who can be canonized as the rightful heir to Thelonious Monk – in terms of purposefulness, shadowy tunefulness and just plain fun – Hersch is as good a choice as any.

A Smoldering Acoustic Set and an Electric Williamsburg Gig by Lizzie & the Makers

The blues can be primeval, and otherworldly, and sometimes just plain chilling. Lizzie Edwards, frontwoman of Lizzie & the Makers, doesn’t limit her songs to a simple 1-4-5. And her subject matter extends a lot further beyond your usual soul/blues turf . Last week, her band’s flickering, blue-flame, semi-acoustic set at Pete’s Candy Store featured a song about a breakdown on the highway and all its ominous implications, along with a handful of angst-fueled oldschool soul ballads. But there was also a number drawing on the Orpheus/Euridyce myth, another inspired by the Rachmaninoff C Sharp Minor Prelude, and a sardonically moody, psychedelically enveloping one about getting fired from a well-known Brooklyn music venue. Lizzie & the Makers are plugging all of their amps in for their next show on August 26 at 9 PM at Black Bear Bar on North Sixth Street in Williamsburg (the old Galapagos/Public Assembly space), where you can expect the band to deliver their usual mix of thrills and chills. But in its own quiet way, last week’s show was every bit as intense.

Most high-voltage bands are completely out of their element in an acoustic setting. This band is all about dynamics, which explains why they didn’t lose any edge even if the volume was way down. And it gave Edwards and her harmony singers this time out- Mary Spencer Knapp and Sarah Wise – a chance to bring extra nuance and mystery to the songs’ darkest corners. Lonely Soul, with its eerie three-part harmonies, took on a Halloweenish tinge, bassist Tony Tino supplying a brooding pulse for this doomed exploration of abandonment in Greek mythology. Guitarists Greg McMullen and James Winwood exchanged solos, moving from elegant spirals to deep-sky psychedelia in Far from Home, the late-night breakdown scenario

In front of the band crammed onto the stage behind her, Edwards rocked a fire-engine-red vintage sundress. By halfway through the set, she was into her second glass of straight whiskey, but even in the evening’s tropical heat, it didn’t visibly affect her. The dusky ambience extended from the band to the crowd and held everybody in its grip. A darkly rustic oilcan slide guitar solo from McMullen lit up Hopeless, an uneasy nighttime street scene. You might not think that an acoustic version of a big barnburner would play up its underlying southern boogie feel, but that’s what the band did with Free. The most psychedelic of all the songs was the brooding, distantly Beatlesque anthem Sleep It Off, as woundedly imagistic as it was bleary-eyed in its allusive account of the aftermath of getting fired from the old Trash Bar. Edwards, who also worked at Pete’s for a time, knows her turf. They wrapped up the set with a soaringly crescendoing take of the full-tilt boogie The Bear and its tense wee-hours tale of averting disaster at the last second, something Edwards also seems to know something about.

The Mehmet Polat Trio Play a Rapturous, Paradigm-Shifting Lincoln Center Debut

Watching the Mehmet Polat Trio in their Lincoln Center debut last night, what became formidably clear was that these are three of the best musicians in the world on their respective instruments. But not only do oudist and bandleader Polat, ngoni player Victor Sams and ney flutist Pelin Başar push the envelope as far as Middle Eastern and African music go, they do it with gravitas, and virtuosity, and soul, and made good on Polat’s promise to draw the audience into their magical interchanges and improvisations, holding what appeared to be a full house in a near dream-state for over an hour.

Polat’s erudition, drawing on years of study of not only Middle Eastern but also Balkan, Mediterranean, Indian and African traditions, expressed itself strikingly in terms of breathtaking technique as well as his vast and searching expanse of melodic ideas. Now based in Amsterdam, Polat hails originally from the Turkish city of Urfa, located close to the Syrian border, legendary as a pilgrimage spot for Christians, Jews and Muslims alike. Much mysticism is associated with the region, and that came across in the more rapturous, enveloping, carefully crafted numbers that Polat played, particularly a couple of slowly crescendoing duo pieces with Sams that blended the hypnotic, circular quality of West African folk music with the brooding, contemplative side of the Middle East.

Bantering gently with the crowd between songs, Polat’s stage presence was humble yet proud. His chops on the oud are spectacular, and his fellow oudists had come to check him out, something Polat was quick to pick up on. His often dazzling speed and ability to evoke the most minute timbral shifts out of his custom-made instrument may have something to do with genetic good fortune- he appears to be doublejointed. And he loves the lows: his axe features a couple of extra low bass strings, which he sprinted down to early in the set to drive that feature home. But ultimately, the additional low end enables Polat to employ the standard low strings  for melodic spirals and flurries that most of his peers typically play further up the scale.

Sams made a strong and similarly individualistic sparring partner, taking his spiky calabash harp to places it’s never gone before, shifting into as many somber, stately Levantine-tinged interludes, tersely minimalst riffs that edged toward Steve Reich territory, and sprightly coy high harmonic accents, as he did the cyclical, trancey patterns typical of the instrument’s usual repertoire. Başar played even more judiciously, and arguably even more hauntingly, mostly in her lower ranges, spiced with minutely intoned melismas and precise patterns that mirrored Polat’s picking.

Together, the three moved seamlessly through slinky, moody, dusky grooves as the beat shifted from a camelwalking sway toward the mystical spirals of qawwali music. Polat showed off as much affinity for the highs as the lows, particularly during a couple of numbers where he built ecstatic crescendos using riffs straight out of the classical Indian sitar playbook. Polat and his trio return to New York for an unlikely gig at Club Bonafide on September 11; cover is $20.

And the Atrium at Lincoln Center continues its eclectic series of concerts. As Jordana Phokompe, its programming director, smilingly asserted before the concert, there’s literally something for everyone here. Fans of Prince can see Burnt Sugar play the Purple Rain songbook on August 25 at 7:30 PM. And high-voltage, socially relevant psychedelic cumbia band MAKU Soundsystem are here at the same time on September 22. Seats get take quickly for these free shows, so early arrival is always a good idea.

Bent Knee Bring Their Intense, Unpredictable, Explosive Art-Rock to Bed-Stuy

Imagine a female-fronted Radiohead. Boston art-rockers Bent Knee don’t sound much like Radiohead, but their esthetic is the same, catchy hooks within arrangements that are endlessly surprising and often epic. Unease and anger pervade their enigmatic  lyrics. Frontwoman/keyboardist Courtney Swain sings with an arresting, sometimes angst-fueled voice that trails off with a brittle vibrato. They’ve got a new album, Say So – streaming at Bandcamp – and a 10 PM show on August 24 at C’Mon Everybody. Cover is $10.

This band never bores you. Most of the tracks seem completely through-composed. Very little if anything ever repeats; the hooks come at you fast and frantic, kaleidoscopically. The amount of memorization this material requires for live performance is staggering. The album opens with Black Tar Water – as in “dumping out the black tar water,” be it bongwater, asphalt, drug residue, or strictly a metaphor. Catchy and shapeshifting at the same time, it sets the tone for the rest of the record. Swain’s dramatic flights to the upper registers contrast with chilly, techy keyboard timbres over tricky meters, negotiated nimbly by bassist Jessica Kion and drummer Gavin Wallace-Ailsworth.

Guitarist Ben Levin nicks a droll Beatles trope as Leak Water opens, Swain lamenting that “I try to speak, but I only leak water.” A brief mininalist intro  hardly foreshadows the punchy, ornate neoromantic crescendos in store: Wounded Buffalo Theory comes to mind. Counselor is a dramatic mashup of creepy circus rock, funk, roaring arena rock and hints of horror film cinematics. “Give me kisses, something squishy,” Swain entreats – yikes!

Eve begins as a Kate Bush-style tone poem of sorts, awash in tongue-in-cheek echo phrases until the crushing guitars kick in along with violinist Chris Baum’s crazed swipes and spirals. Stomping peaks alternate with Pink Floyd lushness and lustre as it goes on; an ominous spacerock interlude that haphazardly balances guitar and strings ends this ten-minute monstrosity. From there, an early Bill Frisell-tinged miniature segues into The Things You Love, Swain musing caustically on the emptiness of materialistic excess, over still, starlit ambience that eventually gives way to more horror film textures, pouncing King Crimson-esque ornateness and eventually a funny, faux-dramatic outro.

Nakami hints at tinkly lounge jazz, then moves toward dissociative Peter Gabriel-era Genesis intricacy, with a long, explosively sweeping Japanese-language outro. From there they segue into the sarcastically bustling Commercial, Levin’s bombastic guitars matching Swain’s fake-cheery vocals and keyboard sarcasm.

Hands Up comes across as a case where the satire cuts so close to the bone that it’s hard to tell whether this is a spoof of American Idol cliche-pop, or a halfhearted stab at a genuine Radio Disney hit – although the band seem far too smart to believe they’d ever get corporate radio airplay. The album winds up with Good Girl, rising out of Levin’s darkly spacious solo guitar intro to Swain’s most caustic lyric here:

Don’t be a hassle
Don’t be a rascal
Great minds think too much
But you’re not a scholar
Nor a philosopher
Turn that little light of yours off
Sing with me
And count to three
Soon it will be
Over

A dis at a wet-behind-the-ears limousine liberal, or feminist empowerment anthem? Swain leaves that trapdoor open. Count this beguiling, unpredictable, wickedly smart album among the very best of 2016.

Sharq Attack Bring Their Rapturously Haunting, Virtuosic Middle Eastern Jams Back to Barbes

“Raqs sharqi” is the Arabic term for bellydance. Sharq Attack, get it? Violinist Marandi Hostetter seems to be the ringleader of this merry, slinky, intoxicatingly good band who jam out decades-old (and maybe centuries-old) Middle Eastern themes. They’ve got a gig coming up on August 23 at 8 PM at Barbes, opening for Slavic Soul Party, who blend Duke Ellington, hip-hop and funk into their blazing Balkan brass sounds.

Sharq Attack’s show there last month was an awful lot of fun. Along with Hostetter, the rhythm section – percussionist Philip Mayer and bassist John Murchison – seemed to be particularly psyched to be playing with the great Palestinian-born oudist Zafer Tawil. They opened with an elegant, moody clip-clop theme, the oud in tandem with the violin, playing variations on a biting chromatic riff. Hinting at a trick ending, they brought the song down to a couple of bristling, rising and falling tremolo-picked oud interludes that Tawil artfully shifted in and out of the shadows. Murchison’s misterioso, tiptoeing bass solo over Hostetter’s otherworldly drone was the icing on this epic sonic confection.

From there they segued into a bouncy. catchy minor-key road theme of sorts, sped it up, slowed it down and ramped up the microtonally-fueled suspense, ending it unresolved. Tawil gave the next number a flurrying oud-and-vocal intro into a similarly anthemic, swaying drive over a catchy, Andalucian-tinged descending riff, his impassioned baritone rising as the song peaked out. They returned to a dusky, austerely bucolic, enigmatically strolling groove after that, utilizing something approaching a western whole-tone scale, then reached for more dramatic levels. Considering that this band has a semi-rotating cast of characters, you never know what other deliciously unexpected tangents the group might go off in next week.

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