New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: noir folk

Best Halloween Show of 2013: Carol Lipnik, Villa Delirium, Big Lazy and Mamie Minch

Is there a style of music that John Kruth can’t play? On Halloween, he brought his witty, ghoulish circus-rock band Villa Delirium to Barbes on a triplebill that was as darkly entertaining as it promised to be. Vllla Delirium are as eclectic as Kruth’s other project, Tribecastan but more grounded in classic Americana than the Middle Eastern, Romany and Central Asian sounds that kitchen-sink instrumental unit explores. As the band name implies, there’s a gleefully dark humor to most of Villa Delirium’s songs. This time out, Kruth switched between mandolin, acoustic guitar and wood flute, alongside the band’s not-so-secret weapon, Tine Kindermann on vocals and singing saw, plus Kenny Margolis on accordion and multi-keys and Doug Wieselman on bass clarinet and mandolin.

Kruth kicked off the night with one of a handful of canivalesque waltzes, followed by the surreeal La Vie de Madame Tussaud, sung in French by Kindermann, with the first of several shivery, sepulchral saw solos. A little later on, she sang the Doors’ Crystal Ship in German, its creepy Weimar psychedelics enhanced by a minimoog solo where Margolis played through a choir patch, adding an uber-goth edge.

Kruth grinningly delivered a mash note to a flirtatious ghost who was hot in her time over Message to You Rudie riffage, followed by the first of a handful of pretty country waltzes, a klezmer-tinged tune and then Kindermann’s Russian/klezmer spoof Nyet Is All You’ll Ever Get. They went a little further west to the Balkans for a murderous tale about the Countess Bathory, who reputedly bathed in virgins’ blood as a medieval precursor to botox. Then they did their funniest song of the night, a droll waltz sung by Kruth that twisted the story of the pied piper into a cautionary tale about how you should never stiff a musician.

A wistful, Celtic-tinged accordion waltz evoked Rachelle Garniez; a little later, they got the audience singing along on the swinging blues tune Calling the Monster Back Home, then the barrelhouse Jerry Lee-style anthem Turning up the Burners in Satan’s Steakhouse with Margolis rocking the piano keys. They wound up their set with the psych-folk waltz What Is the Moon on Tonight: “What is the moon on, mescaline or blow, and where can I get some, I just wanna know,” Kruth deadpanned. He was so taken by Wieselman’s first spiky, rapidfire mandolin solo that he asked for another one and presumably got what he wanted; the crowd roared for more.

Probably because the music was so good, the amateurs didn’t show up until late in headliners Big Lazy‘s second set, and by then it was past midnight. By then, guitarist Steve Ulrich, Andrew Hall (first chair bassist of the Greenwich Village Orchestra) and drummer Yuval Lion had stalked their way through murderous back-alley crime jazz romps, a couple of western swing-tinged blue-sky themes, slasher skronk and a pitchblende lament or two. The most spine-tingling moment of the night was when Mamie Minch came up to join them for a Lynchian version of Crazy. Most women who cover the song sing it whimsically, or bittersweetly; Minch sang it as if it had happened to her and she was living the cruel aftermath, working her way up to the top of her register and then eventually taking a long slide down into her moody alto, adding the occasional, flickering, bluesy melisma as the band tiptoed through the mist behind her. And Minch’s talents aren’t limited to reinventing the Americana songbook; she’s also adept at repairing guitars. She’s recently hung out her own shingle: if you’ve dropped your vintage Martin on the peg and split it down the back, she knows how to get it back in shape.

And Carol Lipnik and Spookarama, who would have been an equally good choice of headliner, opened the night, the chanteuse wowing the crowd with her four-octave range as she sang with an otherworldly resonance through her trusty echo pedal. Pianist Dred Scott played circus blues, noir jazz and hypnotic, Asian-tinged minimalism over Tim Luntzel’s slinky bass as Lipnik ran through a mix of phantasmagorical favorites and the darkly enigmatic, hypnotic songs she’s recently been adding to her repertoire. Right before her encore, she quoted Rumi, which pretty much spoke for itself: “My shadow is only as beautiful as your candle.”

Two New York Shows and a Killer New Album from the Handsome Family

The Handsome Family have influenced so many harmony-folk and dark Americana acts over the years, yet they’re impossible to imitate. The husband/wife team of Brett and Rennie Sparks’ resonant, unaffectedly moody vocals and brooding, surrealistic imagery have put them at the front of the noir folk caravan for the past couple of decades. They’ve got a show tonight, June 27 at 8:30 at the Slipper Room (Orchard and Stanton) and then on June 29 at 9 at the Knitting Factory; tickets are $20 and still available as of this moment. They’ve also got a characteristically excellent, thematic new album, Wilderness, just out,  also available as a deluxe edition from Carrot Top Records along with a book featuring both Rennie’s inimitable animal imagery and prose stylings – plus a poster and postcards.

Each of the dozen tracks on the album – their ninth – takes its name from a different animal, although in many instances those animals are only minor characters in the narrative. And Rennie’s tales are often as funny as they are surreal and creepy. The song ostensibly about a lizard chronicles a witch’s curse that gets an entire village dancing, and then they can’t stop, as the song’s ominous major/minor changes go on and on. The one titled Glowworm is a dead ringer for the Strawbs in their trippiest early 70s incarnation, soaring bassline and all, Brett soberly tracing the Jules Verne-like steampunk steps of an inner-earth explorer. The most oldtimey one is Woodpecker, the second song released this year about Mary Sweeney, the Wisconsin Window Smasher of 1896. In contrast to the jaunty tribute by A Brief View of the Hudson, the Handsome Family allude that her delusions might just have to do with a couple of the era’s most popular, legal substances.

There’s a spider’s tale set to a wry country waltz that’s straight out of Kafka. Flies, a high plains gothic mini-epic, begins with the death of General Custer and connects the dots between wars among both humans and ants. Frogs rocks as hard as this band ever has, a snarling electric Tonight’s the Night-era Neil Young evocation fueled by Brett’s searing leads. Stephen Foster is eulogized, dead and penniless in a Bowery flophouse, with a dreamy waltz lit up by Rennie’s twinkling bass ukulele. Myths – real or imagined – about where birds go in the winter, and the hypnotic effects of the octopus – are explored in wryly minute detail over gracefully waltzing or swaying changes. Giant caterpillars in Belize come to the rescue  – or do they? – when a woman is struck by lightning and “can’t escape the static or the 60 cycle hum” afterward. The funniest song here is Owls, an acerbically droll Edward Gorey-ish folk tune about an old guy losing it in his McMansion with “the clawfooted tubs, the room of rare orchids, the glass hall for my guns, statues of pharaohs twenty feet tall, crystal chandeliers, rare paintings of clowns.” The scariest, and most enigmatic one, is Gulls, which is not the only one here about a magic spell going drastically awry. Funeral parlor organ swells and ripples, glockenspiel tinkles eerily, accordion and fiddle resonate and gentle layers of guitar mingle over steady, minimalist drums. Yet another fantastic album, in every sense of the word.

Luxotone Releases Robin O’Brien’s Darkest Shining Moment

The morbid imagery of the cd package  – a surreal vintage 60s psychedelic illustration by Velveeta Heartbreak – for Robin O’Brien‘s new album Dive Into the End of the World pretty much gives it away. A chillingly understated song cycle fixated on death and dissolution, it’s O’Brien’s first collection of all-new material in years and one of the most shattering albums in recent memory. Beautiful as O’Brien’s voice is, and as many of the songs are, it’s not for the faint of heart. With a nod to Dylan, O’Brien asks her “blue-eyed son” what he sees:

I saw bright coin in the business of cancer
She opened my palm, put a portal in my chest
But earth from her back shakes off the rider
Mother, she knows best

The personal as universal; ontogeny recapitulating philogeny – or vice versa. That’s a line from the album’s third track, a tense, brooding folk-rock song titled Ashes, and it’s typical of what this album has in store.

“Joy is a narrow place, but your face is always changing,” O’Brien reminds over a Ticket to Ride bounce on the hypnotic opening track: summer is something that you “take with you when you go.”  George Reisch’s uneasy, echoing layers of guitars echo the anxious swirl of 80s paisley underground bands like the Rain Parade. Guitarist Kevin Salem opens the next track, Sylph with a snarling, bluesy slide guitar riff, O’Brien’s vocals raging through a bullhorn effect:

This house that I call my home
Slide into the muddy water
By the river’s edge it crumbled
Over stones and broken bottles

Salem takes it out with a long, savage solo, like Richard Thompson at his most assaultive. “Drink the sugar from the leaf, you can taste the passage over,” O’Brien adds knowingly.

She’s been a cult artist for years, sought out for her full-throated, soul-infused, soaring multi-octave vocals. This is her third album on the insurgent Chicago label Luxotone. Her previous two explored everything from folk noir to blue-eyed soul and jazz-inflected, Joni Mitchell-esque stylings. The latter comes front and center on Frozen Still, O’Brien taking flight over Nikos Eliot Flaherty-Laub’s icily surreal avant garde piano, Reisch holding the song to the cold ground with a terse bass pulse. It contrasts with the shamanic dirge I Will Not Fight and its doomed “we cannot drink the water” mantra, Salem’s distantly menacing slide guitar over Marcus Giamatti’s coldly minimalistic bass.

With its jangly, watery chorus-box guitar, soaring chorus harmonies and 80s folk-pop feel, Catalina is arguably the most gorgeous song here. Dive into the Purple Water is essentially the title track, its layers of guitars and O’Brien’s catalog of doomed images building menace over a minimalistic delta blues beat.

O’Brien takes the catchy, swinging 60s folk-pop song Empty into desolate terrain, Reisch’s spaciously funereal guitar accents enhancing its wounded, exhausted feel. St. John blends lush early 90s dreampop with gothic folk, Reisch’s off-center guitar tones transforming it into a surreal lunar lullaby as O’Brien contemplates herself “all ondone amidst the lilies.” On Mountain, Reisch builds wailing, galloping Floydian desert rock behind O’Brien’s tense, accusatory vocals. We Catch Fire works a gloomy Velvets-folk vibe; the album winds up majestically and hauntingly with Under the Skin, a southwestern gothic bolero evocative of  Penelope Houston, fueled by Risch’s simmering, spacious reverb tones:

Night is made of sand
Ours are the children
Born to watch them die
All of our riches
In the cauldron fire

Jocelyne Lanois of Martha & the Muffins and Crash Vegas, Chris Harford and Anthony Presti also make cameos. It’s the high point of O’Brien’s career and a genuine classic that ranks with the darkest material that Nick Cave, PJ Harvey or Nina Nastasia ever recorded.

Haunting Gothic Americana from Clara Engel

Toronto dark folk songwriter Clara Engel has put out a series of excellent singles and short albums over the past several years: her new one, The Lovebird’s Throat is her best yet. Four track on it, all of them streaming at her Bandcamp site.

Not Knowing is just spare skeletal fingerpicked guitar and vocals. It’s the closest thing here to your standard singer/songwiter fare, but it works because it’s a mystery. The person Engel’s so worried about could be lost in the woods, washed into the river…or on their way back to to the death camp with some potatoes or a barrel of kale. Song to the Sea Witch (Disembody My Voice) is a suicide ballad that vividly calls to mind early Patti Smith. Engel artfully adds reverberating, atmospheric layers of acoustic and electric guitar, keys and bells as the song builds from hypnotically haunting to imploring and insistent:

A girl is crying in the racket of my nerves…
Disembody my voice
Let the river fly up to the stars
And I’ll never look back
And I’ll never look down

The two remaining tracks are even darker. Married to the Bone begins as a gothic folk dirge and then rises with Engel’s elegantly echoey, reverberating guitar lines against Humanwine drummer Nate Greenslit’s stark, funereal tom-tom beat and a relentlessly macabre low cello pedal line by the ubiquitously interesting Valerie Kuehne. Engel’s flurrying dead-girl choir midway through will make you jump because you’ll never know it’s coming. The final, slow anthem, Lovebirds sets Engel’s surreally menacing lyrics to stately broken chords played through awatery Leslie speaker effect, with pump organ, creepy music-box piano flourishes and spiky banjitar that mingles rustically into the mix. As gothic Americana goes, it doesn’t get much darker or more interesting than this.

Otherworldly Cutting-Edge Balkan Beauty from Black Sea Hotel

Yesterday evening’s program at the Bang on a Can Marathon was enticing, but it couldn’t have been any more cutting-edge than Brooklyn Balkan a-cappella trio Black Sea Hotel’s performance at a reverb-rich synagogue in Ditmas Park. Willa Roberts, Corinna Snyder and Sarah Small sometimes take largescale arrangements of Bulgarian folk music and strip them down to just three voices; other times they do their own inventive arrangements of traditional melodies. They sing microtonally, in close harmony, an effect which can be hypnotic, utterly chilling, or both. When they’re in the western scale, it’s invariably in a moody minor key. Rhythmically, they weave an intricate counterpoint between the three voices, sometimes with a dizzying series of handoffs, exchanging low, sustained lines with soaring, high ornamentation and the occasional guttural wail, trill or unleashed whoop. But they don’t overuse those devices: most of their songs tend to be plaintive and haunting.

This time out, they sang unexpectedly upbeat, brisk versions of material from their brilliant 2007 debut album (in those days, they were a quartet) along with some brand-new repertoire which turned out to be even more adventurous. They even left the Bulgarian behind and sang a couple of verses in English in one characteristically irony-drenched number, about a bride whose popularity turns out to be a mixed blessing: the wedding party is successful to the point where she has to go hungry in order for all the guests to get fed. Back when the now-unknown parade of songwriters came up with these old folk tunes, life was hard, and both the lyrical and musical content reflect that. The most haunting song of the night described a nightmare where the girl turns into a bird and eventually flies head on into a tree, killing her along with her bird boyfriend: that one ran up and down with a brooding chromatic Middle Eastern feel. But a particularly slow, resonant, poignant-sounding number was actually about the joy of getting a new pair of shoes (centuries go by but some things never change). Snyder joked that back in the day this was probably written, it was a big deal to have something other than a bundle of straw to wrap around your feet and there was more than a grain of truth in that. Other topics included having to ward off a deadly mythical bird-man and all sorts of drama having to do with weddings (again, some things just don’t change).

The trio’s voices are very similar. They all have spectacular range and seemingly just as much power in the low registers as when they go way, way up. There’s an inevitable element of surprise in the tricky tempos of what they sing, but they didn’t miss a beat (although they did have to start one over because it was too high – sometimes singers have to deal with the same kind of issues guitarists have when they capo up). Their newest song was a brand-new arrangement with a more modernist, hypnotic indie classical ambience, its resonance enhanced by the venue’s richly echoey acoustics. Their most energetic one boisterously and menacingly illustrated a couple of younger women giving their thirtysomething unmarried friend a hard time about it, “na na na NA na” raised to a power. The simplest was a catchy, sad waltz; the most ornate had all three taking turns switching off in a split second between low ambience and then embellishing the melody. The most stunning leap of the night belonged to Snyder; Roberts got to relish her way through the most intricately nuanced, stylized series of melismas while Small’s unearthly wail hovered intensely overhead. There’s both a matter-of-factness and a casualness in how they deliver these songs, as if they take their magic for granted. Watch this space for upcoming shows and check out their songs at the Free Music Archive.