New York Music Daily

Music for Transcending Dark Times

Tag: music review

Os Mutantes: Sly Tropical Psychedelic Rock Legends Still Going Strong

Os Mutantes are best-known for jumpstarting the Brazilian psychedelic movement of the 60s. They sang in Portuguese and fractured English, putting a distinctively tropical, wryly humorous spin on the trippiest pop music of the era, a shtick that has become more lovingly satirical over the years. They enjoyed a resurgence back in the 90s and since then have never looked back…other than with their consistently skewed, gimlet-eyed take on classic American and British psychedelia from fifty years ago. Their latest album ZZYZX is streaming at Spotify.

They open the record with Beyond, a jangly, sparkling, Byrdsy twelve-string guitar psych-folk tune that could be legendary Dutch satirists Gruppo Sportivo. “Guilt and medication, you know, is the Catholic way of life,” frontman Sergio Dias sings, earnestly brooding: “To the end I dream by myself.” The music is spot-on Laurel Canyon, 1967: the lyrics, a facsimile that’s so close it’s actually quite laudable.

“How do you think you are all still alive, it is because I am there always by your side,” Dias insists in Mutant’s Lonely Night, a grimly crescendoing anthem, Henrique Peters;  river of organ behind the acoustic guitars, up to a bluesy solo from the bandleader. The Last Silver Bird starts out with jazzy chords and syncopation in the same vein as the Free Design, then the band very subtly shift it into gospel-inspired terrain.

The women in the band sing lead in Candy, a warped take on retro American soul – or just a ripoff of the Move doing the same thing, circa 1965. Gay Matters is a ridiculously unswinging faux-jazz spoof of this era’s confusion over gender roles– maybe that’s part of the joke. The band do the same with early 70s psychedelic funk in We Love You, right down to the warpy, flangey electric piano.

Window Matters is a spot-on early 70s John Lennon spoof and – maybe – a cautionary tale about society growing more and more atomized. “When you’re happy living in the box, closing doors, windows down, no one sees inside,” Dias warns. Por Que Nao is a bossa with woozy synth bass in place of the real thing, while the soul tune Tempo E Espacio is more authentically New Orleans than most American bands could approximate.

The album’s title track is its most ridiculously over-the-top song, a blues about aliens at Area 51. Is the closing number, Void, just a silly sendup of the meme of Indian takadimi counting language, or a genuinely apocalyptic shot across the bow? Dial up the record and decide for yourself.

Calmly Yet Adventurously Exploring Slavic Vocal Traditions with Kitka

All-female Bay Area choral ensemble Kitka love exploring vocal traditions from Eastern Europe to parts of the former Soviet Union. Beyond that eclecticism, they distinguish themselves with their collective vocal range: this unit has strong contraltos to balance out all the soaring highs. Their vast twenty-two track album Evening Star is streaming at Bandcamp. Although a lot of their material is very rhythmically sophisticated, there’s a mystical, reassuring calm to much of it, a welcome antidote to the terror of the coronavirus scare.

The opening medley of Bulgarian carols is a lot of fun, with a very cool contrast between an increasingly complex, stately web of counterpoint and a triumphant “wheeee” bursting from every corner of the stereo picture. That contrapuntal complexity returns again in songs from Romania and Latvia.

They have just as much fun with the eerie close harmonies and swooping, melismatic ornamentation of several more Bulgarian and Serbian tunes. They spice a Latvian round with strange, surreal, looming percussion. In one of the Ukrainian tunes, a couple of the group’s most distinctive voices add striking timbres over an increasingly delirious backdrop anchored by boomy bass drum. The group interpolate a a Greek tune – with a swooping, melismatic Indian flavor- within a brooding Appalachian-tinged folk song, the only one from these shores here.

The album also includes a calm, Renaissance-tinged Russian hymn; a spare, hypnotic Georgian piece and a triptych of Yiddish lullabies over a wafting midrange drone. There are love songs, laments and a peasant work song. Among all the solos, the single mightiest one is at the end of a steady, swaying Ukrainian number. They wind up the album with a Yiddish tune and finally break out the accordion, memorably. In the centuries before the magic rectangle took over the collective imagination, this is what people used to do with their time.

Roots Reggae Rebels Steel Pulse: Never More Relevant Than They Are Now

It’s hard to think of a more appropriate album to listen to in our virus-scare isolation than Steel Pulse‘s Mass Manipulation, streaming at Spotify. It’s the iconic roots reggae band’s best album in two decades. It’s dedicated to fifty-four individuals murdered by racists, many of those killers members of the police. The individuals remembered here begin with twelve-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland, all the way to fifty-eight-year-old Gregory Gunn in Charleston, South Carolina. Several of our fellow New Yorkers are on that list.

This is a magnum opus that’s long overdue. Frontman David Hinds’ voice is a little grittier than it was when the group exploded out of Birmingham in the late 70s, but his songwriting is absolutely undiminished, through a total of seventeen tracks. As to be expected, the production is techier than the clangy, distinctively trebly sound that defined them during their early years.

They open with Rize, a characteristically catchy revolutionary anthem. Stop You Coming and Come is a respectable attempt to blend the band’s classic 70s/early 80s sound with an elegant keyboard-centric production style: “We’re building us a brand new nation, only then the prejudice and bigotry will leave us alone,” Hinds predicts.

The band channel a rebelliously defiant vibe in Thank the Rebels. Likewise, Justice in Jena has a majestic arrangement matching Hinds’ scathing lyric about the infamous Jena, Louisiana racist attack Then he assaults the sex trade in Human Trafficking – has another artist ever been willing to confront those horrors? Pedophile Jeffrey Epstein’s extortion scheme hadn’t come to light yet when the album was released last year, although the scandals at the highest levels of the Republican Party here and the Tories in the UK were old news by then.

Cry Cry Blood is a decent facsimile of the fierce witness anthems Steel Pulse would become famous for forty years ago. Don’t Shoot, a wickedy catchy, chillingly cynical narrative, draws on the murder of Eric Garner – a large black Staten Island street vendor harrassed for years and eventually killed by police in front of a luxury condo whose owners didn’t want him there.

Jimmy “Senyah” Haynes plays biting, Middle Eastern-tinged acoustic guitar on the album’s longest track, No Satan Side, a corrosive look at economic and environmental exploitation in Africa. With N.A.T.T.Y., Hinds sends a shout-out to Rastas keeping it real. With its cold, techy string synth, the album’s title track is a cautionary tale about the ultimate consequences of mass brainwashing. World Gone Mad has a blend of 80s roots sonics and 60s rocksteady; Hinds’ son Baruch adds a sharp, insightful rap cameo.

Awash in shifting keyboard textures, Black and White Oppressors reminds that fascism is not an exclusively caucasian pathology. The Final Call, a fire-and-brimstone warning, has a bizarre contrast between harmonica and a vocoder choir of what sounds like alien beings. The cover of Steve Winwood’s Higher Love (retitled as Rasta Love) is the album’s bounciest track; Hinds finally winds it up with Nations of the World, the most Bob Marley-influenced song, with those aliens on backing vocals again.

Another Scorching, Dark Psychedelic Record From the Electric Mess

Over the last few years, the Electric Mess have established themselves as one of the best dark, punk-influenced psychedelic rock bands around. Plans for a release show for their latest and fifth album, The Electric Mess V got knocked off the calendar by the coronavirus scare. But you should hear it – when it’s online – if sizzling fretwork and retro sounds are your thing.

They set the mood immediately with Too Far, frontwoman Esther Crow and lead player Dan Crow’s guitars building a slinky, shadowy 13th Floor Elevators intertwine along with Oweinama Blu’s organ, Derek Davidson’s bass snapping over Alan Camlet’s drums.

Bad Man could be a minor-key midtempo Girls on Grass tune, Dan’s guitar scrambling and searing up to a vicious tremolo-picked peak. Like a lot of these songs, the loping Last Call has bits and pieces of a lot of classic psych influences, in this case the Doors and Plan 9.

Cesspool is a briskly surreal mashup of Chuck Berry and new wave, followed by City Sun, the band working catchy four-chord major/minor Elevators changes punctuated by a couple of searing Dan Crow solos. Then they shift to abrasively riffy Fun House-era Stooges territory for Speed of Light.

In Laserbrain, the group add some lingering haze to the layers of guitar textures along with some tasty vintage McCartney-esque bass from Davidson. Before the World Blows Up – how about that for a good song title right about now? – could be Radio Birdman taking a stab at 60s Vegas noir pop…or the theatrical hit the Doors should have used to open The Soft Parade.

“Take no counsel from your captains of war,” Esther warns in Strange Words, which in a way is the most hypnotic track here. The albums winds up matter-of-factly but somberly with the brooding Laurel Canyon-style After the Money’s Gone, awash in tremoloing funeral organ and spare, jangly guitars. It’s a little premature to think about anything other than survival right now, but if there’s enough reason to put up a best albums of 2020 page here, look for this one on it.

Vivid String-and-Piano Tableaux From Drum and Lace

Drum and Lace a.k.a. film composer Sofia Hultquist’s tantalizingly short album Semi Songs – streaming at her music page– comprises a quartet of bracingly tuneful, often hypnotically circling instrumentals for violin, two cellos and piano. You could call it minimalism, or new classical music: however you categorize it, this brief, verdant release leaves you wanting more.

The album begins and ends with a diptych, Outsider Complex. The first part opens with a burst of strings followed by some furious, machete-chop sixteenth notes. The piano joins the frenzy, then recedes with a brooding elegance; the strings follow as the song calms before a final volley. As terse and minimalistic as this is at heart, it takes serious chops to play. To wind it up, the piano rises to a loopy insistence, strings leading to a moody lull and tantalizing hints of what will eventually be a deliciously ominous return to tightly orchestrated savagery.

There are two other tracks. The swaying, summery Parhelion begins with a loopy contrast between stark, insistent cello and hazy violin; then the two switch roles as the harmonic web grows more complex, a rondo of sorts. Coyly bouncy piano suddenly leaps in; it ends brightly.

The epic, fourteen-minute Gardenia has a slower, more pensive sway, spacious piano chords and a steady, lullaby-like melody that begins to sound completely improvised. A light, echoey electronic drone moves toward the forefront as the strings echo each other; the piano kicks off the first of several successive rounds of circular riffs. Composer Matt McBane’s ensemble Build comes to mind, although Drum and Lace’s music is more springlike, closer in spirit if not in sound to Vivaldi than, say, Bach.

Transcending a Grim Era in New York with Pedro Giraudo’s Tango Quartet at Barbes

Saturday night at Barbes, Pedro Giraudo thanked a small but raptly attentive audience for their bravery in coming out for his show there with his brilliant tango quartet. Pretty much everybody sitting at the bar drifted into the music room when the band started; not a single person in the crowd showed any sign of ill health.

Inevitably, everyone who writes nuevo tango gets compared to Astor Piazzolla, but Giraudo is the rare composer who’s earned that distinction. Over the past few years, his monthly Saturday night Barbes residency has grown to the point that this was an unlikely opportunity to actually be able to get in to see him at the moment the show began.

As intricately intertwining as his songs are, he’s a very terse bass player who’s more interested in melody and texture than flash, fingerpicking as well as bowing a handful of the more darkly luxuriant numbers. Violinist Nick Danielson swooped and dove, plucking out sparks of pizzicato along with stiletto minor-key riffs and contrastingly silky atmosphere in the quieter tunes. Bandoneonist Rodolfo Zanetti exchanged similarly dynamic, sometimes slashing, sometimes gently resonant washes of sound alongside the group’s spectacular pianist, whose rapidfire cascades and nimbly crushing chordal attack were understatedly spectacular to watch. Players who have that kind of raw power and precision to match are hard to find.

There was a lot of Piazzolla in the set, from the vivid, relentlessly leaping shark-fishing scenario Escualo, to a rapturous, moodily drifting take of Milonga Del Angel, to a considerably more biting, kinetic tune. But it was Giraudo’s originals that everybody had come out for. The high point of the night was Impetuoso,a relentlessly suspenseful, turbulently crescendoing depiction that the pianist finally brought to a searing, icepicked, percussive peak.

Cicada, complete with wry insectile calls from bandoneon and violin, was a lot more carefree and playful. The pianist’s pointillisms glittered most brightly in a newer, more serpentine minor-key tune; a bit later, Giraudo reminded how waltzes are a big part of the tango tradition, with both a strikingly spare, almost minimally elegant one of his own, along with a brief detour back to the early days of tango in Argentina. From there they picked up the pace to close the show with a couple of characteristically rising and falling originals.

Grim conjecture prevailed afterward at the bar. Giraudo spoke of hopefully resuming his residency next month. What’s the situation with the bar now? “Chaos,” as one insider somberly put it. Barbes has been booked so smartly over the years that nights which are slow at other venues are moneymakers here. The official response to the coronavirus scare forced the club to go dark, at least for the foreseeable future. How long can any other venue in town survive? How are all the people who work in any kind of service industry – living from paycheck to paycheck, piecing together shifts, dogwalking gigs and such – going to be able to make rent next month, let alone now? In hushed, serious tones, old friends weighed the odds of every possible dire scenario.

Barbes successfully got through a hard patch when hit with unanticipated building-related costs in 2017: more than eight hundred people contributed to their fundraiser and a benefit concert at Drom in June of that year. Saturday night, several customers enthusiastically considered another one. Others simply wondered how long they could stay here. “I think I’ve got about another month left in New York,” a famous immigrant novelist mused. Another patron contemplated making a new start, away from this climate of fear, with relatives who have a house further north. That we should all be so lucky.

A Small Gathering for Haunting Turkish Music at Barbes

Last Thursday night at Barbes, the bar was pretty deserted. There were two people in the audience for Dolunay‘s practically ninety-minute set of haunting, slinky Turkish songs. One of the two used to book music at a now-defunct Williamsburg venue. The other was darkly distinctive photographer Galina Kurlat, who started working at that same venue when she was still in college, having her first gallery shows, and refining the broodingly rustic tintype technique that would eventually earn her acclaim.

Kurlat’s significant other is Adam Good, who plays oud in Dolunay, as well as with many other electrifying New York Balkan and Middle Eastern acts. Dolunay’s set began slowly and elegantly, frontwoman Jenny Luna holding down a steady, boomy clip-clop beat on her dumbek goblet drum as Good and violinist Eylem Basaldi ornamented the songs’ plaintive, minor modes with bracing, often ominous microtonal accents. Sometimes they’d exchange riffs; other times, on the simpler, more Macedonian or Greek-tinged songs, they’d play twin leads while Luna’s voice soared from suspenseful lows to a poignant, similarly melismatic intensity.

Luna typically likes to play sets of three songs; this time, tunes appeared in pairs. Good switched to the tinny, jangly tambura lute for one Bulgarian-flavored number where Luna and Basaldi harmonized eerily – who knew that Basaldi had such a fantastic, similarly poignant voice?

When the show hit a more suspenseful lull, Luna switched to the more muted frame drum, then the group brought the relentless, haunting intensity back. When not singing in Turkish, the trio joked grimly about the future, to the point of speculating that this could be their last gig – or last Barbes gig, anyway. At this point in time, we can still be optimistic and expect them to be back at this recently shuttered treasure of a venue, at their next scheduled gig there this coming summer. At the moment, there’s beeen some scuttlebutt about temporarily repurposing the club as a rehearsal space.

Saluting a Century of the Wacky, Versatile First Electronic Instrument

Now that live music – and movies, and sports, and museums, and galleries – in New York have been shut down by the coronavirus scare, what can a person do for entertainment? Spring is here: you could go for a good, long run…or listen to a creepy fifty-one track album of theremin music. Or do both at once – it’s on Bandcamp.

To be fair, the NY Theremin Society’s compilation album Theremin 100 isn’t always creepy. While Russian scientist Leon Theremin’s 1920 invention may be most readily recognized for its uncanny evocations of creaky doors in a million horror movies, there are thousands of artists from around the world who have mastered the granddaddy of all sci-fi instruments’ magical force field for both good and evil. A lot of them are on this record. And one of the best, Pamelia Stickney – who’s surprisingly not on it – had a scheduled gig on March 20 at the Owl, but like pretty much everything going on around town, it’s been cancelled.

The album’s first track, Christopher Payne’s Somnambulist is a loopy, swoopy, chromatic nocturne that wouldn’t be out of place in a horror movie: are those strings and bass real, or an expert theremin imitation? Other tracks in the same vein include Herb Deutsch’s Longing – one of many with just theremin and darkly neoromantic piano, and Ei and Kuli Schreiber’s surreal tunnel narrative Train Jumper, at the top of a substantial list.

Often the theremin will evoke a violin, as in Peg Ming’s Therexotica, a gentle, brisk bolero with retro 50s twinkle; About Aphrodite’s lustrous Membran Music; or where Gregoire Blanc adds just a hint of shudder over eerily glimmering piano in Waves – with a bridge that’s too gleefully grisly to give away.

Therminal C’s Sputnik Crash powerfully demonstrates the instrument’s vast range and little-used percussive potential, as does Thorwald Jorgenson’s epic seaside tableau Distant Shores. The theremin gets backward masked in Hekla’s Twin Peaks pop tune Indenderro, used for squiggles and ominous banks of sound in Aetherghul’s Fire in the Sky, and an imploring vocal analogue in Jeff Pagano’s The Ancient Sea.

Some of the acts here employ a theremin for laughs. The Radio Science Orchestra contribute Atom Age Girl, a wry space-surf theme; Everling throws in his droll, bloopy Playing Theremin Is My Madness. The joke is simpler yet subtler in Hyperbubble’s I’m Your Satellite, while Robert Meyer’s deadpan teutonic boudoir groove Taxi is pretty ridiculous. Matt Dallow’s circus rock theme Tailor Made Destination isn’t far behind.

A handful of these pieces are massively orchestrated, like the Nightterrors’ macabre, Alan Parsons Project-ish Megafauna. Others, including Dorit Chrysler’s atmospherically circling Murderballad and Elizabeth Brown’s desolate March 21, are more spare. Twenty-nine tracks in, an electric guitar finally appears in Veronik’s Anomala, which is sort of House of the Rising Sun with a theremin. Song number 38, by the Keystone, is a strangely drifting duet for lapsteel and theremin. The most atmospheric track here, Gabriel and Rachel Guma’s Balloons Tied Up in the Sky, evokes whalesong. The weirdest one, Aileen Adler’s Piezoelectric Dreaming, is a mashup of Balkan reggae and spaghetti western themes.

Much of the rest of this material is classically-tinged: Japan Theremin Oldschool’s take of Ave Maria; Tears of Sirens’ Under the Milky Way (an original, not the Church classic), and Lydia Kavina’s In Green, a pretty piano-and-theremin ballad that wouldn’t be out of place in the ELO catalog if that band had a theremin. Maurizio Mansueti does a great job getting his contraption to emulate bel canto singing in the moody Blindfolded, while there’s a real aria in Robert Schillinger’s Bury Me, Bury Me Wind. The compilers who put this thing together deserve enormous credit for the consistently high quality, vast scope and imagination of most everything here.

Rapturous, Innovative String Music All Over Midtown

When she first formed the Momenta Quartet, violist Stephanie Griffin probably had no idea of how many hundreds of premieres the group would play, a list that continues to blossom. That same fascination with brilliant obscurities and new ideas has informed her work outside the classical world, as one of the few conservatory-trained players who’s just as comfortable and acerbic in jazz improvisation (some would call that “creative music,” but all good music is creative). Her next scheduled New York gig was scheduled for March 20 on a killer triplebill that starts at 7:30 PM at Metro Baptist Church at 410 W 40th St. past 9th Ave.) but is now cancelled. Jazz guitarist Amanda Monaco, who lately has been exploring klezmer infuences, was slated to open the night with her trio, followed by flutist Cheryl Pyle‘s Musique Libre trio, and then Griffin with a chamber jazz quartet, along with pianist Gordon Beeferman playing the world premiere of her first-ever work for solo piano.

One of Griffin’s most interesting recent New York performances was last month, as a member of the Argento Ensemble, on a characteristically diverse, edgy program featuring works by Schoenberg and Erin Gee. It was more than a little embarrassing to get to the show almost an hour late, but the friendly folks at the Austrian Cultural Forum had saved a seat, even though the show was sold out: thanks, guys! And fortuitously, there was still time to catch the group playing a deliciously dynamic, sometimes velvety, occasionally chilling version of Schoenberg’s Verklarte Nacht as well as the world premiere of Gee’s Mouthpiece 29b.

Throughout the former, the sense of the composer aching to break free of late 19th century conventions was visceral. Contrasts between starkness and lushness, Debussyesque bittersweetness and the strange new world that Schoenberg would open the floodgates for were consistently striking. The sting of Mari Lee’s violin was a standout, from the work’s almost frantically volleying crescendos, to the somber lullaby at the end. The rest of the group, which along with Griffin also included violinist Doori Na, violist Jocelin Pan, cellists Michael Katz and Serafim Smigelsky and bassist Tristen Kasten-Krause, dug in just as deeply.

Gee explained to the crowd that she’d written her playful, dauntingly innovative piece in the International Phonetic Alphabet rather than in any extant language. Just witnessing her command of flittingly crisp, almost backward-masked syllables as the ensemble echoed her with sepulchral wisps and glissandos was breathtaking. It’s a very entertaining piece of music, just as challenging for the strings as for Gee, involving both singing and occasional whistling from what seemed to be most of the group. Gee’s surreal, individualistic sound world is like no other on this planet because there isn’t one, other than maybe Meredith Monk’s, as a point of comparison.

Argento’s next scheduled performance is April 18 at the Tenri Institute, with works by Bethany Younge, Yotam Haber and Alma Mahler; cover is $tba.

Twin Peaks Pop and a Bushwick Gig From Nicole Mercedes

Riding home from Barbes the other night, there was a girl on the train who’d gone to extremes to tell the world that she was the saddest person alive. She was about fifteen: ragged blonde bangs, raccoon eyeliner carefully streaked down her cheeks. Her glassy eyes drifted in and out of focus: she was definitely on something, probably Oxycontin. She wore badly distressed turquoise jeans over matching polkadot tights, plus an altered turquoise sweatshirt embroidered with the words “Boys don’t cry.” To which she or her seamstress had stiched in the word “BROKEN,” running vertically down from the letter “B.”

She was with a thin-faced boy sporting a sloppy, day-glo yellow hair dyejob. He was on coke, couldn’t stop wiping his nose or running his mouth. Hell-bent on trying to get her to change her gloomy ways, he pitched group therapy, he pitched drugs. She tried pushing him away – as vigorously as a petite woman who’s zonked on Oxy can push away an obsessive cokehead, at least. It was hard to resist the temptation to go across the aisle, give her a pat on the arm and encourage her to go home and listen to Joy Division. That would have made her feel better.

In reality, she probably didn’t have Joy Division on her headset at that moment: Nicole Mercedes might have been a better guess. The former Debbie Downer frontwoman sings Twin Peaks pop: disembodied, distantly melancholy vocals over a coldly twinkling, techy, atmospheric backdrop where the guitars tend to blend into the keys. She’s a lot more energetic than Julee Cruise, infinitely more interesting than Lana Del Rey. She’s got a new solo album, Look Out Where You’re Going, which hasn’t hit her Bandcamp page yet. She had a gig on March 19 at 8 PM at the Sultan Room; which has been cancelled due to the coronavirus scare.

The opening track, At Ease, sets the stage: catchy four-chord changes, distinct guitars and then a starry synth riff at the end. The song title seems to be sarcastic to the extreme. The second cut, Filters comes across as a mashup of Casket Girls, Michael Gordon and late-period ELO, an unexpectedly tasty blend.

Just when Last Hike seems to be a wistful vacation reminiscence, there’s a grim plot twist: no spoilers! Nicole Mercedes is a dead ringer for early Linda Draper in Mediterranean, the next track, right down to the watery acoustic guitar. Motel has a slowly waltzing resignation that shifts in a more anthemic direction.

Haphazardly minimal, echoey guitar rings through the string synth ambience of Stoop. Thumbalina is album’s most icily orchestral, anthemic number. The closing cut, Watering is a steady, drifting spacerock gem. Beyond a general sadness and sense of abandonment, it’s never clear what Nicole Mercedes is singing about. But this is all about ambience, and she really nails it.