New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: music review

Wildly Diverse, Exhilarating Iranian and Balkan Sounds From Mamaki Khadem

Mamaki Khadem and her band play a frequently psychedelic-tinged take on most of what you can hear at Golden Fest, New York’s funnest annual concert weekend, a celebration of music from across Iran, the Balkans, Mediterranean and Middle East. What a blessing that Golden Fest 2020 took place before the lockdown! For those who missed it, Mamaki Khadem’s absolutely gorgeous, haunting 2016 album The Road is streaming at Spotify.

The first track, A Thousand Strings, is a well-known Bulgarian choral piece, with the usual otherworldly close harmonies from the women in the band, but also chilly synthesized orchestration…and sizzling flamenco guitars exchanging solos. The second cut, Romance, is completely different, a one-chord jam with warmer harmonies over a trip-hop groove, shards of overtones flying from bagpipes and violin.

Do, Don’t is a briskly strutting, slyly jubilant, chromatic Balkan brass number with a potently raw, melismatic lead vocal. Flaming Sun, a brooding soundscape, has imploring vocals. microtonal clarinet and spare bandura lute over a low, looming drone. The group segue into High Sea, a determined, bouncy, Turkish-tinged tune, its calm vocals contrasting with the edgy chromatics of the accordion, fiddle and setar lute.

One of the album’s most strangely psychedelic numbers Little Gem has gamelanesque chimes, tender vocals and a stark breakdown for the string section midway through. Stardust, the album’s most distinctly Middle Eastern flavored track, has spiky oud, echoey piano and viscerally imploring vocals over steady syncopation.

Navaii, a moody soundscape for vocals, bagpipe and synthy backdrop, segues into Pledge, a low-key one-chord jam which for one reason or another evokes ancient English folk music more than it does Iran or the Balkans.

The band elegantly assemble a ghostly choir, chimes, tremoloing lead vocals, flute and strings in Huntsman, an only slightly restrained, gorgeous Balkan anthem. They close the album with the fiery, trumpet-fueled, rat-a-tat brass tune Those Eyes. It’s hard to think of another band who’ve been able to negotiate so many incredibly diverse styles with as much expertise and unrestrained fun as this crew.

Legendary, Obscure Austin Duo Finally Put Out a Debut Studio Release

Talk about tenacity: it took the Living Pins 25 years to make a comeback, with their first official release. The Austin psychedelic duo – guitarists/singers Pam Peltz and Carrie Clark – made their new ep Freaky Little Monster Children in a spare room in a house there. Which explains the oldschool, roughhewn quality of the music, streaming at Bandcamp. No slick production or cheesy synthesizers here, just the two guitars, bass, vocals, Brian the Drum Machine, and maybe a four-track.

They open with Raven, a slinky anthem assembled around a brooding minor-key blues riff: the way they mess with a famous Doors quote is spot-on. The second track, Downtown is a vampy 2-chord vintage Velvets jam with some appropriately haphazard lead guitar in places

Jaguar is the album’s most anthemic number, these Honky Tonk Women taking a stab at mid-70s Lou Reed. Drum machine or not, the tempo gets tricky as the last number, Fish and Beads, a gritty, surreal strut, gets underway, the duo subtly switching up the guitar sound from distortion to jangle and back again.

Fleur Put a Psychedelic Spin on Classic Sixties French Pop

Dutch band Fleur add sly psychedelic flourishes to the classic ye-ye French pop sound that singers like Françoise Hardy and France Gall turned into an international phenomenon in the sixties. The group came together when Les Robots‘ Arjan Spies and Dave Von Raven brought the Colour Collection‘s Floor Elman as frontwoman. Their debut cassette album – which has been reissued, and streaming at Bandcamp – didn’t take long to go viral in Europe.

Musically, the esthetic is similar to American parody band Les Sans Culottes, but without that band’s often savagely cynical, punk-inspired lyrical edge. The opening track, La Tribu des Trompettes has the requisite fetching, boppy vocals (in Dutch-accented French) and trebly guitars, with a sludgy synth break from about ten years after the era the band’s shooting to evoke. But that searing guitar solo is spot-on, and tantalizingly short.

Track two, Mon Amie Martien (that’s how they spell it) has coyly twinkling synth over the snappy, trebly bass, plus nimble, colorful drums and an aptly spacy keyboard break. Sans Toi is a quintessentially surreal mashup of faux C&W, the Beatles and a bit of a hard-psych breakdown midway through. Then the band hit a wry bossa-pop strut in Plus de Rouge

Etoile Magique has a galloping pulse like the early Kinks, spiced with starry electric piano again. They follow with Monsieur Dracula, a bizarre mashup of goofy fuzztone Halloween pop with a melancholy Lynchian bridge.

They shift between Revolver-era Beatles and moody assembly-line American psych-pop in the kiss-off anthem Livrer Tes Affaires, and its botched syntax. Fête de Folie comes across as the closest thing to parody here: that beat and those synth flourishes are just plain ridiculous. Petite Amie, a bizarre update on 50s variétés pop with ragtime banjo and piano, also feels like a spoof.

The queen bee in the scampering, electric piano-fueled La Reine des Abeilles is finished in less than two minutes. A snappy bassline drives Petit Homme de Papier, a strangely bittersweet continental take on Laurel Canyon psych-pop. There’s also Moi et Toi/Toi et Moi, a runaway folk-rock hit which captures the whole band at the top of their game as devious impersonators sixty years after the fact.

Exuberantly Eclectic, Danceable Lo-Fi Rock From Century Egg

Century Egg play disarmingly unpretentious, exuberantly catchy, scruffily amusing, occasionally garagey songs you can dance to. That’s what frontwoman Shane Song wants everybody to do with the first song on the band’s new album Little Piece of Hair, streaming at Bandcamp. That number has buzzy guitar from Robert Drisdelle, a steady bass pulse from Matty Grace and tumbling drums from Meg Yoshida: it all adds up to an eclectically good time.

The rest of the album is much the same: this is party music for smart people with a sense of humor. The second track, I Will Make Up a Method has a kind-of-Motown beat, funny lyrics and a guitar break where Drisdelle gets to cut loose.

Imagine Shonen Knife doing 60s Merseybeat and you get Ring a Bell. The band go for a buzzy late 80s indie sound in the album’s title track: goofy lyric, serious metaphor. Riddle to Place, a surprisingly moody change of pace, has echoes of 60s psychedelia and is over way too soon: the band really had a good thing going here! The final track is Cornered; upbeat early Joy Division with a woman out front singing an allusively grim escape narrative in Chinese.. Crank this when your next party reaches critical mass and everybody will be asking you who this is.

Tight, Gloomy Doom Metal and Psychedelia From Florida Swampland Band the Doomsday Rejects

Sludgy heavy psychedelic band band the Doomsday Rejects got their start playing at the edge of the Everglades amid rising swamp gases. What does a band sound like when weed mixes with methane? Their menacing new album Six Hundred – streaming at Bandcamp – might be the answer.

The first track is Burn. Jason Morgan’s growling bass and guitarist Roland Dean’s slurry chords and Stoogoid wah riffage prowl hypnotically over drummer Capo’s slow, steady sway, frontman Lenny Smith weaving in and out with his apocalyptic rasp. Much as this band likes long, spacious, psychedelic interludes, they have a tight, no-wasted-notes focus and riffs that will still be hammering your brain after the album’s over.

Brujas de Montana has more of a bludgeoning Orange Goblin fuzztone sway, but also hits an unexpectedly anthemic peak after the first series of twin guitar-bass riffs. These guys know every classic heavy psych trick in the book.

Open Your Eyes is a lot faster but even more hypnotic, decaying to a stygian halfspeed break with downtuned bass and a tantalizingly brief guitar solo. Devil’s Candy is a funny, slow march that could be a video game theme. Likewise, Satan’s Panopticom, a sludgy, brief death metal number: definitely a song title for our time, huh?

Built around a creepy chromatic riff and flaring guitar multitracks, Dementia 666 is the most menacingly catchy song on the album. The album’s most epic and psychedelic number is Tlazolteotl Holy Excrement, shifting between halfspeed and then back to a grimly martial swing.

There’s also a pretty straight-up cover of Black Sabbath’s After Forever – you know, the one that gets unexpectedly religious after “Would you like to see the Pope at the end of a rope, do you think he’s a fool?” This band’s rhythm section nails the same swinging groove that Geezer Butler and Bill Ward used on the original; true to Ozzy’s original vocals, White sings into a fan.

Haunting, Wildly Psychedelic East African Sounds Rescued From an Obscure Archive in Djibouti

Many emerging African nations in the 60s and 70s had a national band. Those were typically established by newly independent regimes, to help concretize a national identity in areas which had been balkanized by Western imperialists. While those groups may have been founded and then exploited for propaganda purposes, their music was often very good, and fascinatingly cross-pollinated. One of the most intriguing was from Djibouti.

That country’s group, 4 Mars’ bandname commemorates the founding date of the ruling People’s Rally for Progress party there. What makes this music so unique is not only the haunting chromatics common throughout what is now Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia, but also the global influences that passed through Djibouti’s ports. For centuries, the region has been a major Indian Ocean commercial hub: no wonder the Chinese Communists are building a naval base there.

In a much more fortuitous and peaceful development, the American firm Ostinato Records recently gained access to the massive archives of Radiodiffusion-Télévision de Djibouti and is mining the collection for all sorts of treasures never before heard outside the country. The new 4 Mars compilation Super Somali Sounds From the Gulf of Tjadoura – streaming at Bandcamp – is the first release, comprising both studio and concert recordings made by the regional supergroup between 1977 and 1994.

A couple of the cuts here are questionable: how appropriate is it to include a tribute to a repressive political figure? Sure, the praise-song tradition in Africa goes back centuries. But comparatively speaking, does the inclusion of Dixie in an anthology of American folk songs enhance the album’s historical value…or compromise it ethically and esthetically?

The album’s opening track, simply titled Natesha (Compassion) sets the stage: a Bollywood-influenced, melismatic chanteuse out front of what sounds like a lo-fi, vintage synth-driven roots reggae band playing a dark minor-key groove. That beat is actually dhaanto, an ancient East African rhythm that eventually made its way to Jamaica.

The quasi-reggae pulse gets more organic, with swirly organ, spare bass, trebly tremolo guitar and one-drop drums in the epic, almost ten-minute Hobolayee Nabadu (Hello Peace). The group’s saxophonist, Mohamed Abdi Alto – who now leads the excellent Groupe RTD – plays spare, biting minor-key riffs and remains an often haunting presence on many of these tracks.

Dhulika Hooyo (Motherland) is cheerier, with more surreal harmonies and a massed choir which could be half kids: at their peak, the group comprised more than forty members including dancers. How powerful is Tamarta (Power)? Not so much: this is one of the more synthy tracks, guy/girl vocals matched by tradeoffs between flute and keys, shifting to an unexpected latin soul-inflected groove.

Daroor (rough translation: Drought) has a loping, vaudevillian beat behind the Bollywood-style vocals. The number after that is faster: imagine Fela playing rocksteady. The song for an iron-fisted Djiboutien ruler has more of a strut and is a lot shorter. Likewise, the pulse of Lana Rabeen Karo (It Cannot Be Desired), a long one-chord jam which seems less forced: one thing that definitely can’t be desired is having to sing for a dictator.

Tellingly, the female singers are missing until a couple of minutes into the even more disturbingly titled Tilman Baa Lagu Socdaa (Follow the Rules). Like several of the reggae-ish tracks here, Inkaar Walid (The Elders’ Curse) could be a Burning Spear anthem with surreal Chinese flute and Balkan pop influences.

The broodingly catchy Abaal (Gratitude) seems to be of the same early 80s-tinged vintage as the album’s opening number, with flaring metal guitar, warpy synth and hasty, overcompressed lo-fi production. An acerbically modal traditional wedding song gets a bouncy, electric update with keening flute and synth along with more Ethiopian-flavored vocals: it’s arguably the catchiest track here. The concluding epic is a real departure, a melancholy, pentatonic Chinese ballad. Goes to show what a range of flavors the trade winds will blow in. Let’s hope for winds of trade rather than winds of war in that part of the world in the coming years.

Saxophonist Ralph Williams: A Familiar, Heartwarming Presence in Central Park

Who would have thought that the biggest memes in live performance in New York in 2021 so far would be chamber music, singer-songwriters and buskers? Almost fifty percent of the United States has been liberated and is back to normal, but some of the biggest names stuck in the other half of the country have been reduced to busking to make ends meet.

Not that there’s any shame in a performer doing that. Robin Aigner‘s hapless Mediocre Busker aside, there’s no better way to sharpen your skills than playing public spaces for hours on end, day after day. Now that spring is here, New Yorkers who’ve been starved for live music since the beginning of the lockdown need only look as far as the nearest park.

One of the most familiar sights in Central Park is saxophonist Ralph Williams, whose favorite spot is the edge of the benches just south of the Naumburg Bandshell. He’s been playing solo there for years. As you would expect from someone who’s put in thousands of hours on his instrument in frequently sub-optimal conditions, his chops are formidable.

But he’s not a showoff: his postbop style is very lyrical. Sonny Rollins seems to be an obvious influence, but where Rollins will self-combust, Williams likes subtle shades and ornamentation, and keeps his tempos, such as they are, on the slow side. He adds some gravel to his tone when he wants to drive a point home. Even though he’s playing solo, his approach is uncluttered, with lots of space. Any note in a particular phrase could be the springboard for a flurry or a melisma or a playful curlicue. While most of what he plays seems completely improvised, he’s anything but self-indulgent. And there’s a warmth and optimism, if not full-blown exuberance, in his music: this isn’t a guy who seems to want to exorcise demons with mournful wails or crazed extended technique.

He’s almost always at his usual spot on Sunday afternoons; he was there early Tuesday evening, after the clouds had passed. Too often we run across buskers when we’re enroute and in a hurry. This guy is a New York institution and will lift your spirits if you’re in the mood to hang, listen and recharge for the rest of the day.

A Ubiquitous Habibi Pop Star Celebrates with a Career Retrospective

Twenty years ago in New York, you couldn’t buy a falafel without hearing Ishtar Alabina‘s slinky songs blasting from somebody’s speakers or boombox. The Moroccan-Jewish queen of Romany and Andalucian-tinged habibi pop is still out there: she played here in 2019, touring behind a greatest-hits album simply titled Alabina and streaming at Spotify.

The string synth swooshes mightily as the opening track, also titled Alabina – her signature song, more or less – kicks in with a little Spanish guitar flourish and clip-clop percussion. The guys in the band sing the first verse in Spanish before their frontwoman swoops in, singing in Arabic and bending her way to a stark crescendo. If you’ve been listening to Middle Eastern music over the past couple of decades, you know this song.

She and the band played a lot of Spanish and Latin music over the years. This album has a lot of those songs. There’s the spiky, Gipsy Kings-influenced Baile Maria, as well as La Cubanita, a salsa song with a steady dancefloor thud and a fleeting flamenco guitar solo. The group’s male contingent sing most of Ya Mama, a pretty straight-up salsa tune, as well as the bouncy Tierra Santa, the closest thing to the Gipsy Kings here. The only cover here, Lolole is a habibi pop version of the Animals’ Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood.

Sawash was an early attempt to blend some reggaeton into the sound. There are also a trio of tunes, Lolai, Salaama and Salaam la Paz – which mash up flamenco pop and what would morph into dabke music.

The group’s biggest hits on their home turf were the most distinctly Middle Eastern ones, where they were more likely to use an oud and a kanun rather than guitars to spice all that lush synthesized orchestration. They’re all in minor keys and catchy as hell. Venga, a bitingly irresistible duet, is one of the best of the bunch, while Lamouni has microtonal violin and a rippling kanun solo on the intro.

Purists may hear this and laugh, but Alabina was a gateway drug to a better world for thousands of non-Arabic speakers. One summer day in the late 90s, a future daily New York music blog owner walked out of Rashid Sales on Court Street in downtown Brooklyn with a Umm Kulthuum concert cassette and an Alabina album much like this. In the months afterward, they would get plenty of time on an old walkman. Those cassettes still exist; the walkman sadly does not.

A Legend of 80s Metal, Still Going Strong

Who knew how prophetic Queensryche’s Operation Mindcrime would become, thirty years after it came out? Did the band have a sleeper agent in Davos, keeping an eye on developments in predictive policing and data mining? Or did the group just have a healthy cynicism about transnational elites and their drift toward Orwellian totalitarianism?

And who knew that in 2021, the band’s frontman would still be going strong? Geoff Tate‘s vocals have weathered the storm well. In addition to fronting the Operation Mindcrime touring band, he also has a new album, Relentless, with his Sweet Oblivion project streaming at Spotify. His sound hasn’t changed much over the years: NWOBHM rock with cinematic keyboard ambience.

The opening track, Once Again One Sin immediately hits an ornate, symphonic drive, keyboardist Antonio Agate fueling it with his elegant minor-key piano and wafting string synth, much as he does with the rest of the album. The band reach for a steady, storm-brewing backbeat atmosphere in the second track, Strong Pressure, driven by bassist Luigi Andreone and drummer Michele Sanna’s leaden thump. Guitarist and main songwriter Aldo Lonobile contributes a careening, blues-infused solo.

It takes a lot of balls to name your own song Let It Be – this stomping, midtempo minor-key ballad is infinitely better than the one you’ve been subjected to on the Beatles’ worst album. Another Change, a breakup anthem, has some wild tapping from the guitar – it’s not clear if that’s Lonobile, Walter Cianciusi, or Dario Parente, the latter two also being Operation Mindcrime members.

Wake Up Call has a suspicious similarity to a famous Pink Floyd tune: “How do we get beyond the lies?” Tate wants to know. His wintry vocals hit an unexpectedly operatic peak in Remember Me: imagine the Psychedelic Furs playing metal.

The art-rock alienation anthem Anybody Out There is built around a familiar David Gilmour riff – but it’s not the delicate acoustic one you might be thinking of. As you might expect from a bunch of Italians, there’s a tune here titled Aria…and Tate sings it in dramatic Italian, with a twin guitar solo to match midway through. The album winds up with I’ll Be the One, a pretty generic, mostly acoustic ballad which could have been left on the cutting room floor, and then Fly Angel Fly, the darkest and heaviest track here and a strong coda.

A Titanic, Imaginatively Orchestrated Salsa Swing Album From the Iconic Ruben Blades

What an inspiration it is to see the most fearlessly original paradigm-shifter of all the salsa dura pioneers of the 70s still pushing the envelope. Ruben Blades‘ new album Salswing with Roberto Delgado & Orquesta – streaming at Spotify – is aptly titled, a lavishly symphonic latin jazz project. Blades’ voice is a bit more wintry than it was forty years ago, but he tackles the material here – an imaginative mashup of jazz standards and salsa – with his usual soul and gravitas. Listen closely and you discover that he’s overdubbed his own coros. Hearing him hit those high notes on the second track reaffirms his indominable stature as leader of the old school – which in his case makes him just as much a leader of the new school.

Delgado’s Panamanian ensemble and his colorful, edgy charts make a good match. They open with Paula C, the lushness enhanced by the Venezuela Strings Recording Ensemble. Guest Eduardo Pineda’s Rhodes piano bubbles amid the brassy gusts, trumpeter Juan Carlos “Wichy” Lopez reaching for the stratosphere and nailing it.

Blades lands somewhere between Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. in a blazing, ebullient take of Pennies from Heaven, trombone soloist Xito Lovell cascading down out of a sunburst brass break. The textures and exchanges between the reeds and brass in the instrumental Mambo Gil have grit to match their majesty, alto saxophonist Jahaziel Arrocha taking a tantalizingly brief, spiraling solo.

Blades goes into nuanced crooner mode for Ya No Me Duele over the bandleader’s strolling bass pulse, Tom Kubis adding flourishes on alto sax amid the towering brass. The vocals on Watch What Happens are bordering on breathless, effectively driving home the song’s ironclad optimism over the sudden swells of the orchestra. Blades reaches for similar intensity, but with a more imploring feel in Cobarde and its intricate, understated polyrhythms.

Lopez’s balmy, straightforward trumpet solo flies over an elegant midtempo swing beat in Do I Hear Four?, the group’s counterpoint rising toward inferno levels. There’s a little more drama and mystery in Blades’ voice in Canto Niche, Juan Berna switching between piano and echoey Rhodes. The Way You Look Tonight is the closest thing to a coyly seductive, straight-up fifties Sinatra swing tune here,

Blades winds up the record with a couple of slinky barn-burners. Ricky Rodriguez’s low-key, tumbling piano and Alejandro “Chichisin” Castillo’s smoky baritone sax anchor the dynamically-shifting, colorful Contrabando, Raul Aparicio’s accordion popping in unexpectedly. Similarly, Tambó rises from a streetcorner intro from the percussion section to an insistent, driving oldschool salsa groove. A titanic achievement from a huge, semi-rotating ensemble that also includes percussionists Ademir Berrocal, Raul Rivera, Carlos Perez Bido, Jose Ramon Guerra and Luis Mitil; Francisco Delvecchio and Avenicio Nunez on trombones; Carlos Ubarte, Ivan Navarro and Luis Carlos Perez on saxes; Milton Salcedo, Dino Nugent, Ceferino Caban and Dario Boente on piano; Carlos Quiros on bass; Carlos Camacho on vibes; and Abraham Dubarron on guitar.