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Thrills and Transcendence at Virtuoso Setarist Sahba Motallebi’s New York Debut

Sahba Motallebi hit a sharp staccato chord on her Iranian setar lute. Then she paused, Then she hit another one. Then another pause, then another stilletto swipe. Then she lit into a seemingly endless flurry of righthand chord-chopping that made Dick Dale’s pick-melting intensity seem wimpy by comparison. A series of minutely nuanced harmonics, meticulously precise pull-offs and hammer-ons followed that. The crowd was silent, completely mesmerized. There is no rock guitarist, no oud player, possibly no musician anywhere in the world with such subtle yet fearsome chops on a fretted instrument.

That was the just intro to the fiery, ecstatically crescendoing birth narrative by the Teheran-born virtuoso at her sold-out New York debut at Symphony Space Friday night. She reprised that opening theme as a lively, peek-a-boo shout-out to her two young daughters at the end of roughly ninety minutes onstage, a duo set with another Iranian expat woman, percussionist Naghmeh Farahmand. It’s impossible to imagine a more exhilarating, transcendent performance by another artist in this city this year. Back in the 90s in her native Iran, Motallebi generated a controversy that wouldn’t exist here by winning the Iranian setar showdown three years in a row – as a woman. Beyond sheer adrenaline, this was a raised middle finger at the Islamofascists who won’t let women perform unaccompanied by a man.

The set was a suite, more or less, the duo shifting dynamically through suspenseful, starlit intros to fiery peaks and then back down to spacious resonance with hardly any interrruption. Other than a coy, B.B. King-style “if you like what you hear, we might play some more,” Motallebi barely talked to the crowd. She didn’t need to. On record, her compositions are ornate and meticulously, lushly orchestrated. Yet these more spare arrangements maintained that vast, epic sweep and majesty.

Motallebi is not shy about showing off her extended technique, yet made it part and parcel of the music without being ostentatious about it. Slowly sirening glissandos, hushed harmonic pings and whispers, and seemingly every microtone she could evince from the strings contrasted with her tireless tremolo-picking attack, every bit the more breathtaking for her precise command of it, a stunning combination of power and control.

Throughout the set, Motallebi juxtaposed pensively crescendoing improvisations with her originals, running the gamut of the emotional spectrum. An ecstatically edgy anthem celebrated Nowooz, the Persian new year. The woundedly apprehensive Chaharmezrab e Esfahan built to a guardedly triumphant coda, a salute to Mottallebi’s fellow female musicians from across the centuries. Meanwhile, Farahmand employed both tombak (goblet drum) and daf (frame drum), shifting with what appeared to be effortless good cheer through some tricky time signatures more common to Levantine or Indian music than the centuries-old Persian tradition. Much as the two’s performance was steeped in ages-old gusheh riffs and dastgah modes, these women left no question about their commitment to take this music into the 21st century and make it their own. There will be a “best New York concerts” page here at the end of the year and this one will be high on the list.

New York’s Ultimate Jamband, the Brooklyn Raga Massive Make a Historic Lincoln Center Debut

There was a point during the Brooklyn Raga Massive‘s Lincoln Center debut last Thursday where violinist Arun Ramamurthy built a solo out of a long, uneasily crescendoing, shivery volley of notes, up to a big crescendo – where he stopped cold, midway through a measure. And then glanced around and smiled for a split second, as if to say, “Good luck following THAT!”

There was another moment earlier on where the entire eight-piece ensemble onstage was basically playing a round, everybody in the band hitting on a different beat, a mesmerizing lattice of kaleidoscopic Indian counterpoint. The group followed an increasingly dark trajectory out of lithely circling improvisation on ancient themes, through a pensive and purposeful Ravi Shankar piece anchored by sitarist Neel Murgai, to an absolutely haunting original by bassist Michael Gam cappped off by an achingly plaintive Aakash Mittal sax solo.

Then there was the longest piece of the night, a trickily rhythmic, vamping, psychedelic epic that evoked the Grateful Dead far more than any Indian classical music. Which was the point of the program. Lincoln Center’s irrepressible, charismatic impresario Meera Dugal had booked members of the group last year for a panel discussion on the future of raga music in America, so this was a chance for the multicultural ensemble to bring that future to life in all its psychedelic glory.

They started slowly and gently, as if to ease the sold-out audience into the concept. Singer Roopa Mahadevan – who may be the most electrifying voice in all of New York – worked her subtle side for all it was worth, with her minutely melismatic take of a raga dedicated to the goddess of knowledge and the arts, Saraswati. Kane Mathis played kora on a blithely dancing number and then switched to oud for the night’s most ominously Middle Eastern-tinged piece, lowlit by Max ZT’s hammered dulcimer, a more trebly cousin to the iconic Indian santoor. After almost two hours onstage, the group closed with a wickedly catchy yet tight-as-a-drum jam on a raga that drummer/tabla player Sameer Gupta told the crowd that they’d recognize instantly. And he was right.

The Brooklyn Raga Massive’s raison d’etre is to use Indian classical music as a stepping-off point for improvisation, be it psychedelically inclined or jazzwise. Here, they shifted through a simmering, atmospherically sunset take of John Coltrane’s India; the week before last, they ably raga-ized jazz material as diverse as McCoy Tyner’s African Village and Thelonious Monk’s Round Midnight at Bric Arts in downtown Brooklyn.

The contingent onstage at Lincoln Center also featured the intricate and energetically eclectic talents of bansuri flutist Jay Gandhi, Karavika bandleader and violinist Trina Basu, acoustic guitarist Camila Celin, handpan percussionist Adam Maalouf and tabla player Ehren Hanson. The collective, with its rotating cast of members and leaders, play every Wednesday at 8 PM at Art Cafe, 884 Pacific St. in Ditmas Park. Cover is $10; take the B to 7th Ave.

The Lincoln Center Atrium continues to offer all sorts of similarly deep fun. The next show there is tomorrow, Oct 27 at 7:30 PM with Cuatro Sukiyaki Minimal, who play hypnotically circling, pensive Asian and Latin-influenced themes with thumb piano, traditional Japanese instruments and Korean percussion. The multimedia performance is free, so early arrival is always a good idea here.

Murderously Funny Rockabilly and Retro Sounds From Las Vegas Band the Royal Hounds

The Royal Hounds claim to be Las Vegas’ premier rockabilly band. For that matter, they’d be the best rockabilly band in plenty of towns, maybe this one too. They’re more retro than Rev. Horton Heat but have a similarly explosive guitar-fuled intensity. A couple of years ago, they would have swung through Rodeo Bar if their tour extended this far east. This time around, they’re playing Skinny Dennis on 9 PM on Oct 25. Their latest album, Poker All Night Long (they’re a Vegas band, get it, haha?) is streaming at Soundcloud.

The album is a mix of noir-tinged and more lighthearted fare: when it’s really good, rockabilly in general can be pretty creepy stuff. The centerpiece here is Psycho, the creepy cult classic C&W murder ballad that’s been covered by lots of folks over the years. This one’s a little more propulsive than the Elvis Costello take, and frontman/bassist Scott Hinds’ dead-cool vocals are spot-on. Mema Wants to Dance is a twistedly menacing, scampering cha-cha. The band works a pounding monster surf groove on the instrumental Long Reef; and the cynical Apocalypse Boogie, with its blend of noir surf and Glenn McCallum’s period-perfect, jazz-tinged early 50s guitar, wouldn’t be out of place in the Simon Chardiet catalog.

The rest of the album isn’t as morbid. Elvis Is Haunting My Bathroom is a Stray Cats kind of strut, and it’s irresistibly funny. Bacon Time, with its soaring C&W pedal steel and a killer trick ending, is even more hilarious. The opening track, On the Verge, draws on the roadhouse rockabilly John Fogarty looked back to for swamp-rock hits like Green River. Make It Hail has a defiant My Girl Is Red Hot-style pulse from drummer Scott Billingsley, a snidely funny outlaw ballad spoof with a sizzling, spiraling guitar solo midway through.

Tune in Tokyo has a brassy mariachi bounce: it’s probably the only song ever to rhyme “sake” with “Old Milwaukee.” The instrumental Sneaky Tiki is a choogling mashup of Chuck Berry and Link Way. “We’ll say things we’ll never say,” Hinds sings on the oldtimey swing parody Gin Day: “Have a Gibson!” The album winds up with a cowpunk take of Johnny Burnette’s Train Kept A-Rollin’ Fire up the DeSoto, press “drive” and put some wind on those big tailfins.

Hauntingly Poignant Folk Noir and Phantasmagorical Rock From Thee Shambels

Thee Shambels have been one of New York’s best bands long enough to make it hard to believe that their new album, Lonely à la Mode – streaming at Bandcamp – is their first full-length release. Just in time for Halloween too! Frontman/guitarist Neville Elder’s wickedly literate, bleakly cynical existentialist narratives have never been more acerbically poignant, and the band behind him are onfire through a mix of noir cabaret, Nashville gothic, folk noir, retro soul and a Celtic-tinged ballad or two. Pound for pound, the album is somewhat less raucous than the band’s previous output. The production is lusciously lush, Claudia Chopek a one-woman string section floating behind Melissa Elledge’s accordion, Scott Kitchen’s bass, JJ Murphy’s drums and Sarah Mischner’s soaring harmony vocals. Matthew Dennis plays guitar, Alex Mallett plays banjo and CP Roth is on keyboards.

The opening track, Will There Be Women at My Funeral? has its beleaguered narrator costing out his own funeral over a swinging, Waitsish backdrop fueled by Elledge’s elegant accordion:

Will there be women at my funeral?
Will you press your sisters to attend?
How much do you think they’ll want for their time?
How much do you think I should spend…
Smudge your lips on my dead white face, add the cost to the bill…

And it just gets better from there.

Bad Timing is a slow, reverbtoned Lynchian soul epic set in a vividly detailed, seedy circus milieu where an acrobat’s “empty trapeze swings out in the dark,” as he falls to his death, Elder questioning:

Are the things we want
The things we need?
Are the things we need
The things we want?

With its subtle Brooklyn references, it could be a standout Joe Maynard song.

Caroline is more upbeat, a mashup of Blonde on Blonde Dylan and Walk Away Renee-style baroque pop. The album’s title track is a broodingly romping, masterfully orchestrated minor-key blend of noir cabaret and moody folk rock which wouldn’t be out of place on a Kotorino album. “Let’s throw stuff in the quarry,” Elder intones gleefully in the eerily shuffling Sister, “Maybe we can catch a stray cat.”

Elder punctuates the title of When Will We Be Lovers? with ominously tolling reverb guitar as the song gets underway, then the song build to toweringly majestic, angst-fueled heights. “I’m holding on for dear life,” Elder admits, building a vividly downcast East River tableau. in his characteristically flinty delivery. The slightly more optimistic, backbeat-driven nocturne Radio Down Low (Nashville) could have been a radio hit for the Wallflowers twenty years ago, complete with twinkling piano and mandolin solos.

Elder goes back to slow, moody, classic 60s soul for the breakup ballad Letting Go. Mallett’s banjo drives the sweeping, 6/8 ballad The Girl At the Bottom of the World, a love song that makes an apt companion piece to Roy Orbison’s In Dreams. Happy Birthday Baby (Going Down) takes an unexpected turn into wryly amusing lickety-split vintage R&B; the final cut is the surrealistic instrumental La Valse des Solitaires. Count this among the dozen or so best releases of 2016 and watch this space for an album release show.

An Uneasy John Vanderslice Instrumental Packaged As Collectible Art

Today’s Halloween song is the new John Vanderslice instrumental single, Mother of All Dead Time Factories b/w Convict Lake (For Minna), The A-side is a moodily surreal piano-and-organ theme, snappy bass over a techy trip-hop loop, like Goblin at halfspeed. The B-side has a similar groove, an uneasily ragtime-tinged parlor-pop number that brings to mind Andrew Bird. The single is available on 7” vinyl packaged with a limited-edition, signed 11 x 17 Guy Maddin print entitled Falling Man; the collage comes across as something of an update on Manet’s Dejeuner Sur L’Herbe. It’s expensive – $45 – but collectible value could justify the price. It’s the first in a planned series of vinyl singles paired with collectible prints from Cosmic Dreamer Music.

Celebrating the World’s Most Famous Suicide Song

What’s more appropriate for Halloween than the world’s most famous suicide song? The truth about Gloomy Sunday is a lot less lurid than the legend. The song’s composer, Rezso Seress, actually did commit suicide more than three decades after he wrote it in the early 1930s. It’s a sad tune, although the same could be said about thousands of other melodies from across the centuries, none of whose writers ended up killing themselves. Nor did Laszlo Javor, author of the lyrics to the first recorded version, by Pal Kalmor, in 1935. That reality didn’t stop the BBC and other radio networks from succumbing to an urban myth and banning the song until just a few years ago.

You can hear Kalmor’s wonderful dead-calm performance – complete with funeral bells and heart-wrenching strings –  on the new compilation album Hungarian Noir, streaming at Spotify. The playlist also includes the more famous and considerably subtler 1941 recording by Billie Holiday with the Teddy Wilson Orchestra along with recordings from the past few years, some of which are more Halloweenish than others.

A handful are ludicrous to the point of being funny. A breezy African pop version? How about a Brazilian rap version? There’s also a talented Cuban chanteuse whose phonetic command of English falls short of what a singer needs in order to channel much of any emotion, happy or sad, in addition to an instrumental arrangement by Cuban salsa orchestra Manolito Simonet y su Trabuco, whose icy precision speaks to the group’s professionalism more than their commitment to encouraging mass suicide.

But some of the new reinterpretations of the song are very creative. Matuto contribute a moodily psychedelic, cumbia-tinged version, guitarist Clay Ross’ Lynchian, chromatic reverb guitar mingling with Rob Curto’s accordion. Accordionist Chango Spasiuk approaches the song as a vividly spare, Romany jazz-tinged instrumental. Polish art-rock songbird Kayah’s spacious trip-hop take looks back to the original with stark vocals over lushly crescendoing orchestration. And unsurprisingly, the best of the reinventions here is by Cimbalomduo, a collaboration between two of the world’s most exhilarating virtuosos of the Hungarian zither: Kálmán Balogh and Miklós Lukács. Obviously, their take isn’t about pyrotechnics but slow, brooding ripples and lingering despair.

The best new version of the song didn’t make the cut – or the album’s compilers didn’t have it on their radar. Nashville gothic songwriter Mark Sinnis recorded it on his 2010 album The Night’s Last Tomorrow, and gave New York audiences plenty of chills with it before he headed for the hills and, ultimately, to North Carolina. Speaking of which, Sinnis returns to New York State for a cd release show for his latest album, One Red Rose Among the Dying Leaves on October 30 at 6 PM at Sue’s Sunset House,  137 N Water St in Peekskill. There’s no cover; the baritone crooner and his band will be playing two long sets. The venue is just steps from the Peekskill Metro-North station, and trains will be running for a couple of hours after festivities end at 11 PM.

Michaela Anne Brings Her Southern Charm and New York Edge to Williamsburg

Just a couple of years ago Michaela Anne was playing the small room at the Rockwood, now she’s on nonstop national tour. Last night at Union Pool, she and her tight, dynamic four-piece backing band transcended a laughably inept sound mix with an electrifying set that drew deeply and passionately on fifty years of purist country sounds.

She opened with the best song of the night, a ringing, rousing backbeat anthem that immediately brought to mind Tift Merritt in her early, full-throttle days, soaring up to a minor key and then an accusatory wail on the chorus. The rhythm section, anchored by drummer Aaron Shafer-Haiss, swung it hard as  pedal steel player Philip Sterk traded bars with the Telecaster player. Then the bandleader immediately flipped the script, channeling longing and sadness for an affair that never happened, distantly echoing Townes Van Zandt. Sterk kicked in with a melancholy, stratospheric solo that could have gone on for twice as long and nobody would have complained.

The night’s biggest hit with the ladies was Michaela Anne’s response to Ramblin’ Man. She explained that while she loves alienated wandering-stranger ballads and especially Hank Williams, she’d come to realize that the song is told from the point of view of a guy who’s abandoned his wife and probably his kids too. “”When you think about it, those guys were assholes,” she mused. “Well…maybe not, I didn’t know them, but that’s asshole behavior!” She followed that with a more upbeat oldschool honkytonk number, a co-write wirh one of the Stray Birds about falling in love at country bar; the lead guitarist kicked in a little wry Skynyrd to see if anybody caught it.

Introducing the catchy Worried Mind, Michaela Anne explained that during her time in New York, she constantly felt stressed. “But after I moved to Nashville, I realized that it wasn’t New York, it was just me,” she mused. After that, she brought the lights down, just her pensive, nuanced, Nashville twang, her acoustic guitar and Sterk’s steel, with an elegaic ballad inspired by the death of a loved one and the consolation that ultimately, we’re all the dust of stars. The rousing honkytonk hit Lift Me Up brought the energy back to redline, through the straight-up 60s C&W of Won’t Slow Down, another catchy barroom shuffle, a swampy Rodney Crowell cover and finally a lickey-split electrified bluegrass number where the band really got to show off their road-tested chops. The crowd screamed for an encore, but the house music came up immediately. The next stop on the never-ending Michaela Anne tour is the Armoury in Dallas on Nov 2.

The Calamity Janes opened with a similarly dynamic set of oldtime Americana, bluegrass and a slow, sad Hayes Carll ballad. Frontwoman/guitarist Mimi Lavalley, banjo uke player Betsy Plum, fiddler Kari Groff and bassist Jared Engel joined voices for some fetching high-lonesome harmonies through a a brisk minor-key Appalachian dance tune followed by an even darker country gospel number that was just as propulsive. They gave a surprise waltz ending to their take of Something’s Got a Hold on Me and dedicated a tune about the perils of marriage to Melania Trump. After a lowlit Carter Family tune, Plum switched to fiddle for a tightly spiraling reel; then she led the band through a romping version of Going Down That Long Lonesome Road. As with Michaela Anne, it would have been fun to hear more of them, even though they didn’t have their banjo player, Stephanie Jenkins. with them.

About the sound: a good engineer has to be able to respond in a split second on a fader, or a dial in or out, or, in a worst-case scenario, with a mute. The trouble with these newfangled laptop-controlled PA systems is that they’re unresponsive. Working that touchscreen is like trying to turn a boat, rather than turning a car, and the miserably sick guy in the beard and trucker hat obviously had his hands full with it. For one reason or another, his fault or not, it seemed that he was patching both the pedal steel and the lead guitar in and out of the same input. So when one came up, the other disappeared in the mix. To his credit, he kept a close eye on the band for the sake of bringing the instruments up during solos. But the biggest problem was the one he didn’t fix: the drums were way too loud. Then again, if all you listen to is Eminem, of course you wanna keep those bizzeats bizzangin’ at fizzull blizzast. Weird – the sound at Union Pool is usually excellent.

Gay Marshall Channels Parisian Depth and Joie de Vivre at Pangea

Chanteuse Gay Marshall‘s show last night at Pangea turned out to be as memorable and dynamic as Paris itself. It was also riotously funny – a Parisian might call it “marrant à chier.” In a little over an hour onstage, Marshall made good on her promise of a very individualistic musical tour of her adopted hometown, more imbued with knifes-edge intensity and current-day relevance than vaudevillian flair. Opening with a witheringly cynical Dave Frishberg number and closing with classic Piaf, she mined the depth and intensity of half a century’s worth of iconic and obscure chanson. She’s bringing this spectacle back to Pangea for a monthlong, weekly residency, repeating next Tuesday, Oct 25 and then consecutive Wednesdays, Nov 2 and 9 at 7 PM. Cover is $20 in this lowlit, intimate space, the scent of Mediterranean herbs wafting through the room. Most cabaret food sucks; this place is a refreshing exception to that rule.

To say that Marshall’s plushly crystalline, endlessly mutable mezzo-soprano vocals are disarmingly direct is an understatement. Being an actress, you would expect her to sing in character, yet there was zero affectation in these individuals’ angst, and longing, and devilish joe de vivre. Alternating between her own vivid English translations, and flawless French throughout each of the night’s numbers, she was joined by pianist Ian Herman, who switched seamlessly between wry barrelhouse theatrics, wistful blues, neoromantic lustre and the occasional blazing coda.

The audience was most transfixed by the darkest material. With its harrowing portrait of over-the-edge despair, tricky thematic shifts and vocal leaps and bounds, the night’s most challenging number was Stone, a roof-raiser from the obscure French musical Starmania. The night’s high point was not a whimsical love song but a harrowing triptych of Jacques Brel antiwar ballads. Taking inspiration from Marshall’s father-in-law, a World War II vet, the duo segued from the elegaic Les Grognards to the macabre tritones of La Colombe and finally the Vietnam-era Sons Of (Fils De), which reminds how the kids we send off to war have the same dreams, and nightmares, as those we don’t. Marshall was moved to the point of tears by that number, as well as when she recalled a moment busking on the banks of the Seine, where a homeless guy put money in her beret. Artifice is not a part of what she does, at least here.

Her between-song banter was priceless. She’d set up a whimsicallly minimalist building-block Paris atop the piano, using it as a springboard for wry recollections of her experiences as an American there. A vocal coach who couldn’t bear Marshall showing up in shorts with her skateboard; a Centre Pompidou exhibit exploring the meaning of nothingness (it happened; Marshall went); and the ne plus ultra vanity of people like the woman in Boris Vian’s playfully lyrical, satirical J’suis Snob.

As someone who’s lived in both Paris and New York, Marshall absolutely nailed the connection between the two cities. Much as we may love our respective stomping grounds, we’re equally cynical about them. Which is where her insight and unselfconscious depth really took centerstage, particularly on the more lighthearted numbers. She left out the third verse of Yves Montand’s Les Grand Boulevards because that was where the guy in the song whisks a girl into an alleyway: Marshall considered this “Trump-worthy,” and the audience roared. And she brought out the underlying unease in Piaf’s Marie la Francaise, a broodingly wistful take of Charles Aznavour’s La Bohème and a new translation of Autumn Leaves, reminding that its original title is Les Feuilles Mortes.

Fun fact: Marshall casually related that she used to bike up to the top of Montmartre. For anyone who’s ever walked that hill, especially after a few drinks, just thinking about that makes you want to jump over the fence and collapse in that meadow at the top. N’est-ce pas?

A Historic, Potentially Transcendent New York Debut This Friday by Sahba Motellabi

There’s a concert this Friday, Oct 21 at 8:30 PM at Symphony Space that could be as rewarding as it is historic. Iranian tar and setar lute virtuoso and composer Sahba Motallebi makes her New York debut in an intimate duo set with percussionist Naghmeh Farahmand, playing both traditional Persian classics and originals. $28 adv tix are still available as of today. This is the rare event that fans of both western classical music and the heavier side of rock music ought to consider.

Spend some time at Motallebi’s Soundcloud page and you’ll agree. The first track is an electrifying, lickety-split solo number, Birth. On the more pensive side, There’s A Tear At the Crossroad of Time, a stately elegaic theme spiced with flurrying setar, dynamically layered percussion and lush yet rawly emotive strings. There’s the lively yet ominous Do Asheghe Zar (Two Lovers), a hypnotically epic mashup of otherworldly spiraling Persian themes and icy trip-hop. There’s Chaharmezrab, a majestically pouncing, mightily orchestrated, uneasy illustration of how richly individualistic Iranian music can be, echoing the enigmatic modes of the Middle East, the moodiness of much of the Russian tradition as well as a distantly trancey Asian tinge. It makes your pulse race and your endorphins rush: it’s hard to think of another show anywhere in New York Friday night with as many pyrotechnics potentially in store.

This concert is especially noteworthy for reasons beyond awestruck beauty and thrills. See, in Iran, it’s illegal for women to be bandleaders, and also illegal for a woman to appear onstage unaccompanied by a man. Wouldn’t it be fun if she played just one number all by herself just to give the finger to the Islamofascists?

This concert is staged by Robert Browning Associates, who continue their decades of irrepressible, adventurous, often transcendent programming of similarly pioneering global acts. The next concert on their slate after this one is on November 19 at 8 PM at Roulette, where Andalusian ensemble La Banda Morisca perform “an intoxicating blend of traditional flamenco with Arab-Andalusian melodies and rock.” Tix are $25.

Superstar Film Composer Johann Johannsson and New Music Luminaries ACME Team Up This Weekend

This Sunday, Oct 23 at 8 PM there’s an auspicious collaboration between the vivid and frequently haunting film composer and keyboardist Johann Johannsson, and indie classical chamber music stars American Contemporary Music Ensemble in a recently renovated old church at the edge of where Fort Greene meets Park Slope. The venue is the Co-Cathedral of St. Joseph at 856 Pacific St, (Vanderbilt/Underhill); the closest train is the 2/3 to Bergen St. $27.50 advance tix are your best bet and available at the Poisson Rouge box office.

Johannsson works fast and is constantly putting out new scores. He’s also the rare composer with the good sense to release those scores as stand-alone soundtrack recordings. Of his most recent projects, the real creeper is Sicario, streaming at Spotify. It’s typified by all sorts of apprehensive white noise giving way to sudden swells – then virtual silence. It’s also a lot more electronic than Johannsson’s work usually is: its distant, echoey, icy gunshot sonics and relentlessly lumbering android stomp offer a fond nod back to Brad Fiedel‘s enormously influential Robocop score. A sad cello theme early on is unanticipated and welcome, as is a rippling, trebly electric bass passage. The music takes on more of the feel of a video game as it goes along – but that’s the nature of war these days.

Johannsson also scored The Theory of Everything (at Spotify), which supplies pretty much everything you would expect throughout a feel-good drama . If you’re one of the legions who enjoyed the Stephen Hawking biopic, you may remember the elegant but doggedly determined main theme, lots of anxious neoromantic piano-and-orchestra segments, pageantry occasionally sweeping in from a moody backdrop. You may not remember the composer’s sweet little lullaby, or how much fun he has building starry-night and deep-space scenarios. Hearing the score by itself facilitates new appreciation for such things.

Johannsson’s most recent instrumental album, also streaming at Spotify, is Orphee. The seemingly never-ending main theme and its variations have a surprisingly simple, indie pop touch, beginning with its minimalist, slowly rising waves of piano and strings. Half of it is so simplistic, and lacking in resolve, that it could be Arcade Fire – hmmm, maybe that explains the Poisson Rouge’s involvement with the Brooklyn concert. But that comparison is also not a dis – good film composers write to fit a narrative. Maybe Orphee is meant to follow a vaguely uneasy, possibly tortuous storyline that doesn’t move around much. The Greek myth certainly doesn’t offer much in the way of subtlety.