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No New Abnormal

Tag: my brightest diamond

An Overlooked Lorca-Inspired Art-Rock Treasure from Rima Fand

Much as this blog’s raison d’etre is to keep an eye on what’s happening now, the past is littered with unfairly overlooked albums. One recent one, from 2011, is Rima Fand’s Sol, Caracol (Spanish for “Sun, Snail”). It comprises many of the songs from her theatrical project Don Cristobal: Billy-Club Man, which sets Federico Garcia Lorca poetry to frequently haunting, flamenco-tinged original music. This is the closest thing to an original soundtrack recording that exists, part dark flamenco rock, part noir cabaret, part chamber pop. Besides playing violin, the Luminescent Orchestrii co-founder distinguishes herself on mandolin and keyboards as well, accompanied by an all-star cast from many styles of south-of-the-border and Balkan music.

Although Don Cristobal and his sidekick Rosita are a Spanish version of Punch and Judy, there’s very little here that’s vaudevillian, consistent with Garcia Lorca’s full-fledged rather than one-dimensionally farcical depiction of the characters. The opening track, Midnight Hours, sets a dramatic lead vocal by David Fand over a spiky blend of the bandleader’s mandolin with Avi Fox-Rosen and Chris Rael’s guitars, a soaring choir behind them. You might call this art-flamenco. Lucia Pulido sings the dynamically charged Replica, Rima Fand doubling on mandolin and accordion. Cicada, a shivery, hypnotically suspenseful string piece, blends her violin with those of Sarah Alden and Not Waving But Drowning’s Pinky Weitzman and Matt Moran‘s vibraphone.

Justine Williams
sings the creepy, marching Rosita’s Song. The choir returns for Don Woodsman-Heart, a moody flamenco vamp lit up by Quince Marcum‘s alto horn, morphing into a dreaming, longing waltz. Pulido takes over the mic again on the terse, minimalistic Confusion over My Brightest Diamond cellist Maria Jeffers‘ bassline. David Fand returns to imploring lead vocals on the insistent Abre Tu Balcon (Open Up Your Balcony – that’s Don Cristobal imploring Rosita to have a word with him). They follow that with a cartoonish miniature, Te Mate and then Hat-Ache, another flamenco-tinged, angst-fueled, love-stricken ballad.

The album’s centerpiece is the macabre, carnivalesque Billy-Club Ballet, the bandleader on piano with guitar and percussion, Fox-Rosen’s jagged electric incisions adding menace up to a twinkling piano interlude and then back down. They follow a brief mandolin waltz with La Monja Gitana (The Country Nun), rising from another austere 3/4 rhythm, with a rich, bittersweet vocal from Rima Fand.

Eva Salina Primack and Aurelia Shrenker a.k.a. innovative Balkan/Appalachian duo AE sing the sweeping, tensely moonlit Lullaby for a Sleeping Mirror, building to a lush, anxious round. The album ends with the towering overture La Cogida y la Muerte, sung pensively in English and Spanish by Abigail Wright, the acidic close harmonies of the string section contrasting with Katie Down‘s anxiously dancing flute and the distantly circling trumpets of Ben Syversen, Sarah Ferholt, JR Hankins and Ben Holmes. Surreal, sad, eclectic and vivid, it more than does justice to Lorca’s equally surreal, sad, ironic poetry. The album comes with a useful lyric booklet including English translations.

Lincoln Center Out of Doors Kicks Off with an Eclectic Triplebill

[repost from NY Music Daily’s sister blog Lucid Culture]

The Kronos Quartet are celebrating their fortieth anniversary this year, so it makes sense that the beginning of this year’s Lincoln Center Out of Doors festival – one of the best ever – would be centered around that landmark occasion. The world’s most adventurous string quartet have an auspicious new cellist, Sunny Yang (replacing Jeffrey Ziegler) and their usual slate of premieres and new commissions. Even by their paradigm-shifting standards, their world premiere of Ukraine-born Mariana Sadovska’s Chernobyl: The Harvest – with the composer on vocals and harmonium – last night at the Damrosch Park bandshell was nothing short of shattering,  It’s a suite of old Ukrainian folk songs reinvented to commemorate the horror of the 1986 nuclear disaster, which by conservative standards killed at least a million people around the globe and caused the breakup of the Soviet Union, the world’s second-greatest power at the time.

Singing in Ukrainian, Sadovska began it a-cappella with her signature nuance, a thousands shades of angst, sometimes barely breathing, sometimes at a fullscale wail, occasionally employing foreboding microtones to max out the menace. Violist Hank Dutt got the plum assignment of leading the ensemble to join her, Yang’s foreboding drone underpinning a series of up-and-down, Julia Wolfe-esque motives. Quavering, anxious Iranian-tinged flutters from the cello along with violinists David Harrington and John Sherba, astringently atmospheric harmonics and a big, uneasy crescendo, the harmonium going full steam, built to a savagely sarcastic faux circus motif and then a diabolical dance. That was the harvest, a brutal portrayal whose ultimate toll is still unknown. Through a plaintive theme and variations, Sadovska’s voice rose methodically from stunned horror to indignance and wrath: again, the triptych’s final theme, Heaven, appeared to be sarcastic to the extreme, Sadovska determined not to let the calamity slip from memory. Nuclear time forgives much more slowly than time as we experience it: 26 years after the catastrophe, wild mushrooms in Germany – thousands of miles from the disaster scene – remain inedible, contaminated with deadly nuclear toxins.

In a counterintuitive stroke of booking, luminous singer Shara Worden’s kinetic art-rock octet, My Brightest Diamond headlined. They’re like the Eurythmics except with good vocals and good songs – hmmm, that doesn’t leave much, does it? Or like ELO during their momentary lapse into disco, but better. Sh-sh-sh-sh-Shara can get away with referencing herself in a song because she does it with tongue planted firmly in cheek, and because she’s as funny as she can be haunting. She loves props and costumes – a big cardboard moustache and a fez among them, this time out – and draws on a wide-ranging musical drama background. But she saves the drama for when she really needs to take a song over the edge, belting at gale force in contrast to a fat, droll synth bass pulse late in the show. Her lively arrangements rippled through the ensemble of Hideaki Aomori on alto sax, Lisa Raschiatore on clarinet and bass clarinet, CJ Cameriere on trumpet, Michael Davis on trombone and Alex Sopp on flutes, like the early/middle-period Moody Blues as orchestrated by Carl Nielsen. Sopp’s triumphant cadenzas capped off several big crescendos, as did Aomori on the second number, a circus rock song with dixieland flourishes. Worden brought the energy down to pensive for a bit, crooning with a low, ripe, Serena Jost-like intensity and playing Rhodes piano on a hypnotic trip-hop number. Worden switched to minimal but assured electric guitar on a slow, pensive tune and then a warm, gently arpeggiated love song, then to mbira on a similarly hypnotic but bouncier Afro-funk song. “A girl from the country had a dream, and the best place she could think of was here,” Worden beamed to the packed arena as she wound up the night. “We’re living the dream.”

Emily Wells was lost in limbo between the two. The smoky patterns on the kaleidoscopic light show projected behind her on the back of the stage offered more than a hint of the milieu she’s best suited to. It was a cruel if probably unintentional stroke of fate that stuck Wells, a competent singer, between two brilliant ones. Her music is quirky, playful and trippy to the extreme. Wells can be very entertaining to watch, when she’s building songs out of loops, adding layers of vocals, keys and violin, switching between instruments and her mixing board with split-second verve. But as her set – the longest one of the night – went on, it became painfully obvious that she wasn’t doing much more than karaoke. She sang her dubwise, trippy hip-hop/trip-hop/soul mashups in what became a monotonously hazy soul-influenced drawl without any sense of dynamics. Where Sadovska sang of nuclear apocalypse and Worden tersely explored existential themes, the best Wells could do was a Missy Elliott-ish trip-hop paean to Los Angeles. And when she addressed the crowd, Wells seemed lost, veering between a southern drawl and something like an Irish brogue. But the audience LOVED her, and gave her the most applause of anyone on the bill.

Lincoln Center Out of Doors is phenomenal this year: the Kronos Quartet will be there tomorrow and then Sunday night. The full calendar is here.

Freebies from New Amsterdam Records

How about some free music from one of the most cutting-edge labels around? Starting December 5 at 10 AM, New Amsterdam Records will be putting up a new album every day for the following five days for free download. December 5’s album will be Sarah Kirkland Snider’s excellent Penelope album, a lushly uneasy avant garde antiwar suite told from the point of view of Odysseus’ wife, with Shara Worden of My Brightest Diamond on vocals. The label is keeping mum on what else is in the pipeline: you’ll have to hit their fundraising page every day in order to find out.

The reason they’re doing this is to sweeten the pot for their DIY Kickstarter-style fundraising campaign: on the high end, ten grand gets you dinner with Kirkland Snider plus her co-directors William Brittelle and Judd Greenstein, plus a private concert featuring a label artist at a location of your choice within 2 hours of NYC, plus a thank-you in the liner notes on all 2012 NA releases, plus VIP admission to all the label’s artists’ concerts in 2012, plus the label’s full back catalog, plus all kinds of autographed stuff. Obviously, there are plenty of other rewards for considerably less than five figures.

What’s impressive here is that unlike a whole lot of other labels, New Amsterdam has figured out that people aren’t willing to buy a pig in a poke anymore: music fans want to hear what it is they’re being asked to purchase. And it goes without saying that if you like, say, the new yMusic album – one of the label’s 2011 highlights – on mp3, you’ll REALLY like how the cd sounds.

Now if they’d only do vinyl…

Mighty, Majestic 19th Century Rock Songs from Elisa Flynn

Elisa Flynn’s 2009 album Songs About Birds and Ghosts was a stark, moody collection of literate rock songs. The production went for a scruffy, jangly acoustic-electric feel, but the tunes sometimes reached toward a towering majesty, particularly the opening cut, Timber, a genuine 21st century classic (watch the video, a wry Blair Witch parody, here). So the question that screamed out was what if Flynn decided to go all the way and give her songs an epic grandeur rather than simply hinting at it? That’s exactly what she’s done with her latest release, 19th Century Songs, and that’s why it might be the best rock album of the year.

Flynn is a one-woman orchestra, playing all the guitars and keys, backed by an alternately mighty and elegant rhythm section of Mark Ospovat (who also produced) on bass and Anders Griffen on drums. Sometimes she unleashes a swirling dreampop cyclotron, other times a savage roar, often both at once: some of this music is the bastard genius child of My Bloody Valentine and the Throwing Muses. Flynn’s vocals on Songs About Birds and Ghosts were gripping – here they are exquisite. She’s always been a good singer – she’s a student of Shara Worden, something that pretty much gives her instant cred – but at this point Flynn has reached the point where she may have surpassed her teacher. And that’s not to disrespect My Brightest Diamond’s frontwoman, a powerful and dynamic presence, but simply to say that Flynn can pack more wallop into a single, wounded bent note than most people can with an entire album.

The lyrics explore historical themes, allusively: they’re sung from an eyewitness point of view, often without directly referencing a particular incident or time period, which makes them all the more interesting. The opening track, Close Your Eyes, once again is the real stunner here, pairing off the drama and intensity of the verse against a gentler, watery chorus straight out of the Lush playbook from around 1989. Is this song about the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair murders by serial killer H. H. Holmes?  Maybe. 19th Century Breakup Song follows a more predictable trajectory, building up to the chorus, like the Walkabouts if they’d been from Brooklyn instead of Seattle. Flynn’s wary, nuanced voice contrasts with the raw power of the guitars: on an all-too-brief solo, she fires off a series of biting octaves while Ospovat slinks behind her in the shadows.

The third track, Eliza Donner, evokes Siouxsie & the Banshees, ominous guitar rising and falling above Griffen’s menacing, funereal drums. “Does He watch us like we’re figures in a snow globe?” the doomed woman asks, hope slowly turning to dread. “I can’t hear you talking but I hear the wind laughing at me.” The next song, Fram, seems to be a seafaring epic, a surreal torrent of sinister imagery, its narrator “cutting into ice for weeks and months” over a backdrop of intricate fingerpicking. Flynn goes back to Siouxsie-esque with Poor Little Lamb, the most exhilarating song here, carnivalesque organ fluttering behind the wall of guitars for extra menace. Midway through, when a completely evil dreampop bridge leaps out from behind the central riff, the effect is literally breathtaking. The album closes with the pensive, gothic folk tune William Tecumseh Sherman, a soldiers-eye view of the Civil War where “the blackest days have shown themselves” and southerners (or is it all the soldiers?) “lay down their lives for twisted dreams of older men.” The CD comes with a “lovely hand-crafted cover, 3 prints, and a 1″ pin,” for six bucks at Flynn’s bandcamp, where you can hear and also download the whole thing.