New York Music Daily

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Tag: noir music

Orkesta Mendoza Bring Their Desert Noir to Lincoln Center

Orkesta Mendoza are connoiseurs of noir. A lot of what’s lurking in the shade of that big black umbrella takes its origins from the Balkans, Romany and Jewish music, notably hi-de-ho jazz and its descendants in ghoulabilly and elsewhere. But a lot of noir comes from south of the border. For bandleader/guitarist/keyboardist Sergio Mendoza, none of those styles are off limits: slithery mambos, funereal boleros and towering, angst-fueled, cinematic rancheras, to name a few. He and his sizzling band – which can vary in size from a six-piece to a full orchestra – take those styles and mash them up into stampeding, lushly and exhilaratingly arranged psychedelic rock. They’re playing Lincoln Center Out of Doors, out back in Damrosch Park on July 29 at 7 PM. You should get there early if you want a seat.

The group’s most recent New York appearance was last year at South Sttreet Seaport, with a roughly ten-piece lineup including a horn section. Mendoza’s songs, whether originals or covers, tend to be expansive and go on for sometimes ten minutes or more – they redeem the concept of a jamband. This time out, in roughly forty-five minutes onstage, there wasn’t time for a lot wild improvisation, altough the group made those moments count. Mendoza played mostly acoustic guitar, shifting to the organ for just a single number. The star of this particular show was lapsteel player Joe Novelli, who played with a searing, chromatically-fueled fury. This wasn’t western swing – it was el diablo del desierto teleported from the netherland where Ambrose Bierce disappeared.

Baritone saxophonist Marco Rosano also distinguished himself and played keys on a couple of songs as well – lots of guys in this band double on several instruments. The most haunting song of the afternoon was Dulce Amor, a menacing bolero sung with drama and passion by Mexican cult favorite crooner Salvador Duran. Another similarly ominous, more upbeat minor key number was Mambo Mexicano, a springboard for several sizzling solos from throughout the band.

There was also a pricelessly hilarious moment. After the bass player led the group into a slinky psychedelic cumbia groove, Mendoza began it in English. It didn’t have much in the way of lyrics, and it turned out to be just a one-chord jam – but the band made it interesting. And when they got to the chorus, when Mendoza deadpanned “Don’t tell me that you love me,” it turned out that this was a Fleetwood Mac cover, Tusk, the 1979 hit that might be the most soporific song ever to reach the top 40. Fewer people in the crowd than you might expect got the joke – then again, 1979 was a long time ago, and it’s not likely that number gets a lot of corporate radio airplay anymore. For their last song, the group brought up whirlwind accordionist Rey Vallenato Beto Jamaica – who’d opened the afternoon with his band – raising the energy several notches. The only drawback about this show was that it was relatively short, but at Lincoln Center, artists typically get about a full hour onstage.

An Artfully Orchestrated, Intensely Noir New Album and a Joe’s Pub Show from Esteemed Chamber Pop Band the Old Ceremony

Back in the early zeros, when songwriter Django Haskins was a familiar presence playing around the Lower East Side of New York, it’s not likely that he drew a lot of Leonard Cohen comparisons. But artists grow, and as the years went on Haskins’ work took on a welcome gravitas, culminating when he formed chamber pop band the Old Ceremony in 2004. For those who might not get the reference, the band name is a shout-out to Cohen’s cult classic album New Skin for the Old Ceremony. The group are currently on tour for their excellent new album, Sprinter – streaming at youtube – with a show at Joe’s Pub tonight, July 25 at 7:30 PM. Cover is $15, and remember, the venue doesn’t charge a drink minimum anymore.

The album opens with the title track, a scampering folk noir number, like a more lushly orchestrated Curtis Eller song, Mark Simonsen’s eerily looping vibraphone contrasting with Gabriele Pelli’s gusty violin. Haskins’ elegantly emphatic twelve-string acoustic guitar joins with Simonsen’s organ and a nebulously dense arrangement on the stomping Live It Down, bringing to mind Pinataland.

An enigmatically catchy waltz, Ghosts of Ferriday opens with swirly Pink Floyd organ and builds to an ominously clanging noir-psych interlude fueled by Haskins’ creepy tremolo guitar: it’s sort of the missing link between Jimmy Webb and Nick Waterhouse. ”Something for the headphones, something for the chatterbox, drown out the howling of the human rain,” Haskins relates with crushing, deadpan sarcasm in the pulsing 60s bossa-noir anthem Magic Hour, evoking another cult favorite New York band, the Snow.

The sinister Mission Bells goes back to a latin noir slink, Haskin’s sardonic wah guitar paired against Simonsen’s smoky organ, with subtle, Lynchian dub tinges and an unexpectedly feral guitar solo out.  Over Greenland opens with an airy minimalism, channeling the narrator’s dread during a red-eye flight from who knows what – and then the scene shifts to a sarcastic, faux-Springsteen tableau. Fall Guy starts out with a brooding boleroesque groove and picks up with an anthemic stomp – the chute jumper at the center of the story sounds like notorious hijacker D.B. Cooper.

The moody, fingerpicked folk-rock blue-collar anomie anthem Hard Times wouldn’t be out of place on a recent Matt Keating album. Dan Hall’s rumbling drums and Shane Hartman’s dancing bass propel Efige, a snarling southwestern gothic narrative with murderously Balkan-tinged guitar. The final cut is Go Dark, packed with tricky metrics, snarky faux cinematics and metaphorically-charged suspense in the same vein as Ward White‘s most recent material. There’s just as much going on in the other songs as well, subtext and symbolism and allusions: if there’s any album this year that requires repeated listening, this is it. Notwithstanding contributions from southern indie royalty – Mike Mills of REM and the Baseball Project, and Chris Stamey from the DB’s – it’s Haskins’ tour de force. He’s never written more strongly or for matter played guitar with as much spacious, suspenseful intensity as he dives into here. It’s always good to see an artist at the top of their game fifteen years or so after they started, isn’t it?

Rachel Mason’s Epic New Folk Noir Album Traces Two Twisted Historical Narratives

In addition to her work in film, video and performance art, Rachel Mason is one of the most entertaining artists in art-rock. An edgy surrealism, a laser sense for catchy tunes and a spot-on political sensibility define her work. She’s performed pieces which recreate a Rand Paul thirteen-hour filibuster in its entirety, sent shout-outs to freedom fighters in Chechnya and to inspirations as disparate as Beyonce and Marina Abramovic. Mason’s latest project is an ambitious film where she plays the role of a newspaper editor whose imagination is sparked by the January 15, 1936 deaths of two historical figures, both named Hamilton Fish. One is a New York State congressman and the most minor figure in a prominent political family, the other a sadistic serial killer and self-described cannibal executed in the Sing Sing electric chair. The accompanying double album, The Lives of Hamilton Fish is streaming at Bandcamp.  Mason has a couple of intriguing shows coming up: on July 21 at 7:30 PM sharp at Anthology Film Archives, she’ll be singing to accompany the film. Then on July 26 at 7 PM, Mason will playing the album with her band and countertenor M. Lamar at Joe’s Pub. General admission is $15, but advance tix are a good idea because it’s likely to sell out.

This is one creepy album. There are a grand total of twenty-one tracks on Mason’s folk noir magnum opus, mostly just reverbtoned acoustic guitar and vocals. Mason has really done her homework, filling out the narrative in rich detail. For example, in the opening cut, Two Strangers, Mason alludes to the many sewing pins that the killer Fish inserted into his abdomen…and also references the most likely apocryphal stash of cash that his shady Republican county boss namesake buried in the woods somewhere in New England. Mason’s voice is richly nuanced, depending on the song; sometimes muted and somber, sometimes horrified and reaching for the rafters with a spine-tingling, dramatic edge, as on The Werewolf of Wisteria, one of the monickers given to the sadomasochistic Fish in the contemporary press.

Likewise, the music is typically somber and minor-key as a lurid crime chronicle takes centerstage. On one hand, Mason doesn’t downplay the grisly, hallucinatory storyline, but she also doesn’t deny dignity to the victims, many of them children. And there’s plenty of sympathy here for the tortured orphan who would later turn his demons loose on the world – he claimed to have killed, dismembered and eaten more than a hundred victims, a claim that’s been subject to plenty of dispute. Mason also poignantly reminds that an innocent man was tried – and acquitted – for one of Fish’s crimes.

The sarcasm rises to fever pitch in A Distinguished Line, contemplating the irony in how history remembers a mass murderer better than the undistinguished scion of a Republican political fortune. Mason’s sarcasm is crushing: “I sang soprano in the little boys’ choir, and the things they did to me made my voice grow higher,” she sings in Wild Fish, a broodingly subdued chronicle of the killer’s horrific childhood. Mason really works the mystery – despite the two central characters’ divergent life stories, sometimes it’s hard to tell which Fish Mason is talking about. Throughout the album, two other similarly brilliant, historically-inspired songwriters, Robin Aigner and Elisa Flynn often come to mind. The arrangements occasionally get more fleshed out, encompassing creepy Alec Redfearn-esque organ-fueled psychedelia and shuffling Americana or 80s goth-tinged rock.

And what of the largely forgotten upstate New York politico? There’s a happy ending here, at least on his side. While not addressed on the album, Hamilton Fish V – the last of the line, Hamilton-wise – redeemed the name, turning the family’s Republican legacy on its axis, becoming a prime mover behind the resurgence of the influential progressive weekly The Nation. After springboarding a respected think tank and independent media center, the Nation Institute, Fish V now runs a consultancy that aids environmentally sustainable businesses. At least that’s what he does when he’s not growing organic produce.

Ben Von Wildenhaus Brings His Gorgeously Entrancing, Lynchian Guitar Back to Brooklyn

Guitarist Ben Von Wildenhaus is a connoiseur of noir. He’s also one of the best loopmusic performers around. Loopmusic is as brutally difficult to play live as it is easy to record: you lay down a phrase, preferably a simple, catchy one that you can harmonize with, and then play over it, again and again. Onstage, if you miss a beat, you’re screwed, but Von Wildenhaus has done this to the point that he has it in his fingers. His new album II is streaming at Soundcloud, and available on delicious vinyl. He’s also got a show coming up at Troost in Greenpoint on July 9 at 9 PM accompanied by a diversely talented cast: vocalists Clara Kennedy and Scott Matthew, resonator guitarist Zeke Healey and violist Karen Waltuch.

The album’s opening track, Bad Lament is basically variations on the Twin Peaks theme with boomy drums, a balmy bocal choir, tersely suspenseful Rhodes piano, spiky twelve-string guitar. Hard to argue with a classic riff and what a talented cast can do with it…but not crediting Angelo Badalamenti’s original is a crime. The originals start, essentially with the first part of The Knife Thrower, a fast, shuffing, surfy take on a noir bolero, veering between tremoloing Lynchian twang and surfy staccato phrases, a smudgy loop taking the place of the drums.

From the title, you might think that Al Azif would be a Middle Eastern theme, but instead it veers from a Frisellian pastoral soundscape into eerie, more ambient shadows, an attempt to evoke a creepy, H.P. Lovecraft insectile atmospherics. For whatever reason, the next track, Bad Motherfucker is a slinky Egyptian snakecharmer theme punctuated with tersely spiky layers of guitar and Rhodes electric piano. Then Kennedy sings the torchy, slowly swaying, ominously crescendoing ballad Tú in Spanish, up to a smoky baritone sax solo over shivery, reverberating Rhodes electric piano and guitar.

Side two of the album opens with Bad Lament II, a less thinly disguised version of that iconic theme, veering toward more skronky terrain: think Tonic, 2006. The second version of The Knife Thrower slows it down to a simmering, halfspeed intensity, a white-knuckle tension between the echoey Rhodes and lingering, twangy guitar building a Morricone-esque southwestern gothic tableau.

An Nur follows a stern, woundedly stark upward trajectory over an almost imperceptibly pulsing backdrop: it’s arguably the catchiest track here. Easy Opium, arguably the album’s strongest and most anthemic cut, pairs elegant Rhodes bolero-psych riffage against Ethopian-flavored violin, with a jagged sax/guitar conversation on the way out. The album winds up with Two, an anguished ballad, like Botanica lost in the desert and the only track with actual lyrics. One of the most cinematic and consistently interesting albums to come out so far this year, it’s something you could put on loop and discover something new in every time – maybe something about the music, maybe something about yourself, if you aren’t afraid to look in the mirror.

Noir Rocker Tom Warnick’s Side Effects Could Be His Best Album

Isn’t it validating when an artist you’ve followed for ten years or longer puts out a new album – and it turns out to be the best thing they’ve ever done? You could make that case for Tom Warnick‘s latest release, Side Effects, streaming at Spotify. Warnick is a brilliant tunesmith, an evocative crooner, a devously witty keyboardist and has a deep back catalog of sardonic, often noir-tinged songs that goes back to the late 90s. In New York noir cirlees, he’s iconic. And there was a time that it wasn’t certain that he’d make it as far as as 2015. But a couple of well-documented brushes with the grim reaper didn’t stop him from pretty much picking up where he left off as one of this city’s most reliably entertaining performers.

The big news about this album is that Warnick’s band the World’s Fair – whom he equates here to “a box of bent baseball cards” – have a new secret weapon. Alto saxophonist Jason Reese has been more or less a fulltime member for the last few years, but this is the album where he finally gets to go front and center and he makes the absolute most of it: he can be balmy and carefree, or murderously smoky. When the band gets noir here – and they do that a lot – it’s Reese who’s usually the main culprit. They open with a revamped older tune, the wry, pun-infused title track, reinvented as a swinging soul number with Reese adding a break that brings to mind the Sonny Rollins solo on the Stones’ Waiting on a Friend.

Just when you think Doing My Time is a blithely stomping rockabilly-flavored romp, Warnick hits a swirly series of minor chords on the organ, underscoring the song’s existential unease. City of Women, one of Warnick’s signature songs and a big crowd-pleaser, pairs lead guitarist Ross Bonadonna’s snarling, surfy leads with Reese’s blue-flame riffage: it’s more retro noir than the horror-surf version the band used to roll out as an encore a couple of years back.

Long Way from Home is a surreal, Jim Jarmusch-esque travelogue set to loping C&W: “I will push open the emergency door, do you think it will make a sound?” Warnick asks snidely, “Excuse us while we disappear far from this burial ground.”

I’m a Stranger Here first took shape as a pulsing new wave tune, but it’s a swinging, bitterly reminiscent noir number here, Reese’s shadowy lines over Warnick’s eerily tiptoeing piano, with contrasting guitar jangle and wail from Bonadonna and John Sharples. As good as the rest of the album is, this one’s the high point, musically speaking at least. .

Lost in Place is another gem, an elegantly savage Elvis Costello-esque look back at navigating the tortuous corridors of high school, bassist Scott Anthony choosing his spots and hitting a few choice high notes. The band goes back to the noir for Old Man Blues, its moody reggae-tinged groove bringing to mind the Specials’ Ghost Town. In its first incarnation, Cop Car was a pretty straight-up blues; here, Warnick’s blackly amusing tale of a highway pot bust gets the full Peter Gunne treatment with a honking blue-smoke sax chart and eerily watery guitar that gives way to a jagged 70’s arenarock solo from Bonadonna.

The album ends on an unexpectedly upbeat note with the baroque pop ballad Fly Away and its surreal push-pull between teenage anomie and blissed-out ambience, and then the Tex-Mex bounce of Falling in Love Again. Look for this one somewhere on the best albums of 2015 page here in December assuming we get that far.

Jon DeRosa Brings His Haunting, Lynchian Chamber Pop Back to New York

It’s amazing how Jon DeRosa can croon with such nuance and skill considering that he’s lost most of the hearing in his right ear. Another sad reminder of the brain drain that continues to plague New York, the noir chamber pop singer decamped for Los Angeles last year, but has a haunting new album, Black Halo  to show for it. He’s bringing those ghostly songs back to town for an album release show at around 10 at St. Vitus in Greenpoint on June 3; cover is $10.

“The initial inspiration was this intense feeling of isolation and disconnection growing in me while still in New York,” DeRosa explains, “And kind of retreating into this inner world, this spirit world, really. After living there for so many years, I literally felt like a ghost drifting through the crowds, invisible, and with no real connection to anyone or anything.”

Who in New York, who’s been here since the zeros or even earlier, hasn’t felt that way? We’re excluded from the political process that’s turning even the grungiest working-class neighborhoods into ghost towns of future crackhouses, built not as actual homes but as lifesize gamepieces for robber barons hell-bent on cashing in on the real estate bubble before it explodes. And the privileged white suburbanites displacing the artistic class here have no interest in what makes a city a city. The arts don’t exist in their social media-based meta-world. They barely even watch movies. They’re all starring in their own little status-grubbing dramas which they think are comedies but are really horror videos. And they all think they’re Spielberg, but they’re not even Ed Wood. What’s just as disturbing is that some of us have found ourselves dragged into that too, by demands of the dayjob or just trying to stay in touch with the rest of the world.

That was what DeRosa escaped; from the album, he seems to have regained his footing in a shadowy place between the living and the dead. Much as there’s an elegaic strain that runs throughout the songs, there’s hope as well. DeRosa plays guitars, with Charles Newman on keys, Matt Basile on bass, Tom Curiano on drums and Carina Round on vocals. Claudia Chopek’s one-woman string section and Brad Gordon’s one-man wind ensemble join forces to create a lush miniature orchestra on several of the tracks.

The album’s opening, Lynchian, 60s noir pop ballad, Fool’s Razor establishes an atmosphere of anomie and defeat despite its towering, angst-fueled sweep. DeRosa’s chiming twelve-string guitar mingles with glockenspiel and piano on The Sun Is Crying, a sad waltz with a late 60s Laurel Canyon psych-pop vibe and a shout-out to Leonard Cohen. Then DeRosa and Round reach for unexpectedly blithe, surrealistic, mariachi-tinged Vegas pop with When Daddy Took the Treehouse Down.

Coyotes veers from southwestern gothic to mid-80s Cure jangle: “Fear is a thief in disguise, cuts out your heart and flees with its prize,” DeRosa broods in his resonant baritone, then follows with a wryly familiar Edith Piaf riff. Give Me One More Reason is the album’s most psychedelic track, a bartender cynically watching the night’s last patrons, who “don’t know how it feels to end the night standing upright,” waiting til after the doors are locked to pour a few glasses for the ghosts of the whores who still call the dive their home.

The bolero-rock number Lonely Sleep works an elegant, understated angst:

You say that there’s a river, but I see no way across
And you say the mind’s the builder, but my mind has long been lost

DeRosa and Round duet on the ghostly lullaby Dancing in a Dream, a more organic take on Julee Cruise Twin Peaks atmospherics. The piano-driven dirge Blood Moon brings to mind the Ocean Blue as well as DeRosa’s more ambient work with Aarktika. Likewise, Knock Once has 80s values: brisk new wave bassline, hypnotically loopy goth guitar. Then DeRosa brings a lingering, astigmatic 80s ambience to Orbisonian pop with You’re Still Haunting Me – which, when you think about it, pretty much defines what Lynchian music is all about, right?

The album’s most epic number is High and Lonely, a spare, hypnotically apocalyptic anthem: “I want none of your fleeting wealth, I want none of your earthly fortune,” is DeRosa’s mantra. The album winds up with the title track, a Spectoresqe instrumental waltz. DeRosa has a strong and occasionally shattering back catalog, notably his 2012 release A Wolf in Preacher’s Clothes, but this is his strongest, most consistent release. It’s not officially out yet, therefore no streaming link, although a couple of tracks are up at Motherwest Studios’ soundcloud page. Fans of the creme de la creme of dark rock: Nick Cave, Mark Sinnis and the rest will love this. It’s good to see someone we pretty much took for granted here in New York able to keep the torch burning thousands of miles away.

Noa Fort Brings Her Darkly Expansive, Eclectic Songs to the West Village

Pianist/singer Noa Fort– younger sister to respected jazz pianist Anat Fort – is one of New York’s more interesting and original artists. She bridges the gap between art-rock, chamber pop, classical and jazz, singing in both English and Hebrew, reflecting her Israeli-American background. Her moodily modulated alto vocals mirror the diversity of styles in her playing: she can channel torchy cabaret, creepy circus rock or work the corners of a song with a jazz and blues sophistication. She’s playing Caffe Vivaldi on May 26 at 9 PM.

She likes minor keys, slow tempos and takes her time: the videos on her music page often go on for six or seven minutes at a clip. The first tracks are solo or duo performances. There’s Winter Requiem, a slow, brooding art-rock anthem. The second number works around a menacingly carnivalesque stairstepping piano theme. No World Between Us – a duet with sparse, Lynchian washes of guitar from Amir Weiss – has an icy gothic rock feel, but with a loose rhythm that owes more to jazz. Fort goes deeper and even more darkly into that idiom with All By Yourself, a trio with her sister plus bass clarinetist Nitai Levi, before the instruments go off on a a jaunty improvisational tangent. And Now Is the Time – also with Anat on piano – looks back to Nina Simone for inspiration.

Fort’s originals leading a quintet are straight-up jazz, lively and rhythmic, with a similarly moody edge that brings to mind the work of another Israeli artist, Avishai Cohen. And her choice of Wild As the Wind is particularly apt, a richly dynamic take that starts absolutely ghostly and then picks up with a bittersweet edge: And just when you think you have her pegged as an enigmatic jazz/classical type, you discover at the bottom of the page that she likes ska-punk. Go figure. It’s more likely that she’ll air out her more introspective stuff at the show next week…but wouldn’t it be cool if she threw a Hub City Stompers song into the mix to shake up the room…

The Sideshow Tragedy Bring Their Visionary Apocalyptic Blues to the Rockwood

The last time this blog caught up with the Sideshow Tragedy, it was a couple of years ago late on a Friday night in the red neon backroom at Zirzamin, and the Austin noir blues band was killing it. Really killing it. Guitarist Nathan Singleton was airing out his bottomless bag of jagged minor-key licks, drummer Jeremy Harrell had a murderous stomp going and there were some special guests, if memory serves right – it had been a crazy night up to that point. Fast forward to 2015: Zirzamin is sadly gone, but the Austin band has a new album, Capital, streaming at Continental Record Services‘ site, and a similar small-room, Friday night show, in this case at the Rockwood on May 22 at 11 PM. This usually sedate space is in for a serious jolt of adrenaline, tempered slightly by the fact that the new album is somewhat more spare and haunting than the band’s previous, often unhinged gutter blues attack. It’s a concept album, a sinister, brilliantly metaphorical portrait of a nation gone off the rails in an orgy of greed and mass desperation. Fans of Humanwine will love this.

“Summer’s here, and the tramps are on the move, ten to a trailerbed from Chicago to LA…you can taste the decay,” Singleton broods in Number One, a corrosively relevant, cynical portrait of haves versus have-nots over a riff-rock groove that other bands would have turned into metal, but these guys do as a shuffle. Likewise, Blacked Out Windows, with some harmonically offcenter multitracks, could be Sonic Youth, but instead Singleton runs the riff over and over for an ominously hypnotic vibe: “Smoke and mirrors closing in…his carnival calm is easy to believe,” Singleton warns. “The palms of the priest are easy to grease.”

Singleton more or less talks the apocalyptic lyrics to Keys to the Kingdom as Harrell beats a frantic, funereal pulse on his tom-toms. The Winning Side, a similarly frantic, scampering anthem, sounds like Dylan’s It’s All Right Ma, I’m Only Bleeding at doublespeed: “It’s not the thought that counts,” Singleton muses grimly. The title track works a dusky midtempo slide guitar groove, a caustically aphoristic parable of the 21 st century going back into the dark ages in a hurry. “You listen to the police scanner as your write your report, better fill your quota while you got time…you can’t see the horizon ’cause it don’t matter right now, so rob the beggars blind,” Singleton taunts. It’s arguably the best and most relevant song anybody’s released this year.

Two Guns pairs Harrell’s shuffling, misty cymbals against Singleton’s uneasily precise slide guitar and menacing stream of metaphors: “The rockets’ eternal red glare, the shooting off of lights and flares, it’s getting dark out there.” So when Singleton finally reaches the point where he works a song around a major-key hook – with the only slightly less troubled Animal Song, which wouldn’t be out of place in the Marcellus Hall catalog – there’s a sense of relief, however temporary.

Let the Love Go Down returns to a death-obsessed theme with a series of fire-and-brimstone metaphors over a relentlessly rolling and tumbling drive.The album ends with Plow Song, a spiky resonator guitar-fueled trip through a postapocalyptic landscape where you’re bound to end up with “a gun for all seasons and a bit in your mouth.” Powerful words from a Texas band. Best album of the year? One of the top handful, no question.

The Bright Smoke Earn Comparisons to Joy Division

Lots of groups draw comparisons to Joy Division. Inevitably, all of them fall short. None of them can match that iconic band’s shatttering gothic art-rock grandeur…and nobody goes as far into the abyss as Ian Curtis. The Bright Smoke are a rare exception to that rule. In a way, their new album, Terrible Towns – streaming at Bandcamp – could be the great lost Joy Division album between Unknown Pleasures and Closer. Except that frontwoman/guitarist Mia Wilson doesn’t sound anything like Ian Curtis. However, she does have a powerful, angst-fueled low register, something akin to Cat Power without the affectations (ok, hard to imagine, but just try). She’s as strong a tunesmith and lyricist as she is a singer, and an inventive guitarist. Her songwriting is equally informed by oldtime acoustic blues and dark rock: other than the guys from Manchester, the new album occasionally brings to mind the live Portishead album. The Bright Smoke are playing the Cameo Gallery on May 19 at 9 PM; cover is $8.

As you would expect from such a relentlesly dark outfit, their songs are on the slow side, and usually in ninor keys. Beyond having a woman out front, the Bright Smoke distinguish themselves from Joy Division in that they’re considerably more swirly and psychedelic. Live, drummer Karl Thomas colors the songs with a terse, almost minimalist precision and the occasional jazzy flourish. Lead guitarist Quincy Ledbetter is a monster player, a master of texture and timbre, who although he has blazing speed doesn’t waste notes: if Bernard Sumner had started playing earlier than he did, he might have ended up sounding something like Ledbetter. Lately, for atmospherics, onstage the Bright Smoke have been including an electroacoustic element.

The album’s opening track, Hard Pander, could be Sade covering Joy Division. Wilson’s lyrics are enigmatic, sardonic, often imbued with gallows humor and this number is typical:

I don’t have to fake my inclinations
I don’t have to draw on my scars
You’re in over your head, girl
Pander right and pander hard

The way the bass rises, a low harmony with the wary, wounded guitar overhead in Like Video is a recurrent, artful touch throughout the album: this band really works every dark corner of the sonic spectrum. And Wilson’s cynicism is crushing:

I hear the Midwest stretches on for miles
And calls you back and it’s always on time
I hear it don’t have a past like mine
I hear the Midwest don’t have a voice to raise
Just settles down on her knees and prays
And makes you feel big in your small way
Baby, I’m in town today

On Ten also works a recurrent trope, Wilson’s elegant fingerpicking against layers and layers of lingering ambience, a savage dissection of Notbrooklyn ennui:

Join, join, join the ranks
Of the pretty, white, and jobless
And pray your daddy’s money away
At St. Sebastian’s School for the Godless

August/September is a diptych, the first part a plaintive piano waltz evoking Joy Division’s The Eternal, the second fueled by a menacing, echoing pulse that ends in crushing defeat: its quiet, sudden ending is one of the album’s most powerful moments. “There’s a bloody side to this, I don’t share your sunny disposition,” Wilson warns in Exit Door, with its wickedly catchy “You wanna know where the money comes from” mantra. Shakedown, a creepy roadhouse boogie in Lynchian disguise, brings to mind Randi Russo. “If there’s a game of losing friends…you and I would be Olympians,” Wilson broods.

Howl builds nonchalantly to an unexpectedly catchy, yet unpredictable chorus that would be the envy of any stadium rock band, a sardonic look at self-absorption lit up by a nimble tremolo-picked Ledbetter solo. City on an Island, with its watery chorus-box bass and 80s production values evokes early New Order and might be the album’s catchiest song. It might also be its most searing one, a kiss-off to a fauxhemian:

Good luck with your pylons
With your city on an island
And good luck with the small false hints
That you live the way I live

The album’s final track, simply titled Or, is a Mississippi hill country blues vamp, T-Model Ford spun through the prism of psychedelia and trip-hop, closer to the band’s stark, spare previous output than anything else here. Look for this around the top of the best albums of 2015 page in December if we make it that far.

The TarantinosNYC Surf the Silver Screen

The TarantinosNYC use that name to distinguish themselves from the Tarantinos, a UK band who play a diverse mix of songs from Quentin Tarantino films. The TarantinosNYC do some of that, but they also write originals. They’re best known as a surf band, but as you would hope from a group with a film fixation, they have a cinematic side. Their music is catchy, and fun, and sometimes pretty creepy, much more unpredictable and occasionally epic than what most straight-up surf outfits typically play. Between them, lead guitarist Paulie Tarantino, bassist Tricia Tarantino, keyboardist/rhythm guitarist Brian Tarantino and drummer Joey Tarantino make up one of New York’s most consistently interesting, original, entertaining bands. They have a new album, Surfin’ the Silver Screen coming out and a release show this Friday, May 15 at 11 PM at Lucille’s Bar, adjacent to B.B. King’s on 42nd St. Cover is $10.

Shindig – one of the six first-class originals here – makes a good opener: purist reverb surf guitar hitched to swirly organ, the rhythm section holding a classic Ventures beat. The organ and digital production give it a more current feel, yet also enable the band to put their own stamp on it. Bullwinkle Pt. 2 is the first cover, lowlit with Paulie’s lingering, noir, reverb-drenched tremolo-bar chords. Then they reinvent You Only Live Twice as a glittery showstopper, Brian’s organ front and center. It’s almost like ELO doing a surf song – and if you don’t think ELO could play surf music, you haven’t heard their version of a well-worn Grieg theme.

Dust-Up, another original, mashes up hints of monster surf and a Dell Shannon standard: it’s hard to imagine any band other than this one that would have come up with something this improbably successful. Their cover of Son of a Preacher Man brings to mind the Ventures’ psychedelic period – yikes! But then they get serious again with Our Man Flint/Dr. Evil, first doing an old hymn as surf, then channeling pretty much every dance rock style from the 60s in under three minutes

Quincy Jones’ Soul Bossa Nova is a bizarre hybrid of roller-rink theme, garage psychedelia, a vintage soul strut and artsy late 70s Britpop. With its vamping repeaterbox guitar and some dancing tremolo-picking from Paulie, Spanish Steps sounds like Link Wray in a hurry to get a Lee Hazlewood desert rock groove on tape. There are two versions of another instrumental, Our Man in Amsterdam, the second harder and more garage-rock oriented – it’s hard to figure where the Amsterdam connection comes in.

The theme from Django – Tarantino’s best film by a mile – gets a richly watery, jangly, psychedelic arrangement with layers of acoustic and electric guitar and keys that elevates it above the cartoonish original. Pushed along by Tricia’s dancing, period-perfect early 70s soul bassline, Lo Chiamavano King comes across as a more artsy take on what could pass for a big Roy Ayers title theme.

Elena Barakhovski contributes soaring vocalese on Korla’s Theme, an artfully nebulous, ominously crescendoing Dick Dale-style Red Sea stomp with all kinds of cool variations – it might be the album’s best song. Then they slow things down to a misterioso swing with an impressively lush cover of Shake Some Evil by 90s cult heroes Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet. Positraction, another original, manages to blend Booker T, 60s go-go music, surf and swing without anybody in the band stepping on anybody else. Then they do Les Baxter’s Hell’s Belles as blazing psychedelic soul. The album ends with Man from Nowhere, a rare spy-surf gem first recorded by Shadows bassist Jet Harris on the soundtrack to the obscure British film Live It Up, pairing a brooding baritone guitar hook against uneasily airy keys. Surf bands typically live for rarities, but this is an especially sweet find. For that matter, so is the whole record. While it  hasn’t hit the usual spots yet, cds are available, and there are a handful of tracks up at the band’s Soundcloud page.

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