New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: noir music

Satoko Fujii and Natsuki Tamura Keep Hope Alive With a Visionary, Otherworldly Album

What do musicians do when their careers, and their sources of income, have been stolen from them by the lockdowners? Pianist Satoko Fujii and trumpeter Natsuki Tamura came to the point where the only option was to turn their Tokyo home into a recording studio..and started putting out one amazing album after another. Their latest, Keshin, is streaming at Bandcamp. It’s a gorgeous and erudite record, packed with humor and horror, and a resolute determination. It’s transcendent in the purest sense: this is clearly what these two road warriors are doing to stay sane. Fujii and Tamura most likely do not see themselves as heroes, but there’s genuine heroism in their music: running the gamut of possible emotional reactions, they offer incredibly inspiring perseverance and hope at this pivotal moment in history.

They might also be doing this because they sense that the forces of sanity and compassion are going to win this battle. As the ugly statistics continue to pour in from Europe – thousands dead, hundreds of thousands maimed – the needle of death is dead in the water. Someday soon, we’ll be able to listen to this album both as portent and celebration, as dark as it may sound now.

The first track, Busy Day, starts out ridiculously funny: it’s not fair to give the joke away. The bustle from there never stops: very precise, very tongue-in-cheek harmonies, Fujii getting sick of the whole thing and thinking again and again of smashing it to bits, Tamura delivering a handful of withering, machinegunning, goosebump-inducing solos. He’s the Japanese Peter Evans…or, Peter Evans is the American Natsuki Tamura.

Track two, Donten has Tamura playing variations on a catchy, easygoing theme as Fujii lingers in the ominous lows and eventually cedes centerstage completely. She returns with spare, guarded minimalism as Tamura refuses to relent, then goes deep into the cave, as she’s been doing lately, cascading and quietly lamenting: when is this madness going to end? The shivering low-high contrasts afterward are as haunting as anything released this year.

Fujii opens Dreamer as a solo, icily Messiaenic lockstep pavane: subtext, anybody? Tanura’s shininess overhead dovetails perfectly. Three Scenes is surreal to the extreme: Tamura begins with rubbery bubble-rubbing squeaks against Fujii’s chilly, emphatic chords and then reaches for the sky as she parses creepy chromatics and an offhandedly hellish bell choir. The reprise of the sotto-voce stroll from the previous number isn’t lost here, although it seems like more of a real victory this time.

The two maintain the horrorstricken/calmly indomitable dichotomy in the album’s title track: it’s the great lost next-to-last segment from the Quartet For the End of Time, at least until Fujii gets all the nervous tension out of her system and brings back the carillonesque solemnity.

The dichotomy between intense piano agitation and determined, optimistic trumpet is less severe, more minimalistically auspicous in the next-to-last number, Drop, although Tamura’s signal for a flamencoish theme soon reaches incendiary heights. Husband and wife close yet another brilliant album with Sparrow Dance, a shadow version of the playful opening track: trouble is still afoot in this twisted space, and it can strike anywhere, particularly as Fujii develops a macabre vortex. She has two other albums out recently which are contenders for best record of 2021 and this makes three.

More Dark Retro Soul From Nick Waterhouse

Nick Waterhouse has been one of the prime movers in the retro soul movement for over a decade. His latest album Promenade Blue – streaming at Bandcamp – is a welcome addition to that consistently strong, purist body of work, focusing more on the noir side of that sound than usual here. You know the drill: reverb on everything, harmony singers who punch in on the chorus, trebly guitars and melodic bass playing through vintage amps, and nonstop catchy hooks.

With the opening track, Place Names, Waterhouse reinvents pre-Motown soul with stark strings in lieu of the kind of wafting orchestral sonics that Phil Spector would have used. And Waterhouse is more of a crooner than most artists from that era. At about four minutes, the song gives him a chance to chill and reflect on better times…as those of us who remember the glory days before March 16, 2020 have probably been doing in the time since.

The Spanish Look doesn’t have anything remotely Spanish about it, although it does have a lot of fevered Elvis in it, hey heh, mmm hmmm. Waterhouse goes back to a roughhewn, vampy early 60s milieu with Vincentine, complete with tantalizingly brief, blazing Chicago blues guitar breaks.

He paints a doomed, down-and-out Tom Waits tableau in the next track, Medicine, over a Lynchian guitar twang. Very Blue is the album’s best song, a gorgeous early 60s Orbison noir song complete with desperately hammering piano, bittersweet major/minor changes….and flurrying early ELO strings. “I remember trying hard just to wake you up,” Waterhouse intones – and the rest is history.

Elvis goes to see the gypsy in Silver Bracelet, set to a tinkly Vegas noir backdrop. Promene Bleu, a quasi title track, makes for a tasty instrumental mashup of Django Reinhardt and oldschool soul with a smoky tenor sax break. The noir tropes reach parody pitch in Fugitive Lover – gruff baritone sax, fire-and-brimstone gospel imagery repurposed as crime jazz, hook-and-ladder guitar riffage, the works.

Waterhouse goes back to primitive mode for Minor Time – as in “was your major, but you made the change” – and then picks up the pace with the quasi-surf Santa Ana 1986. Turns out Waterhouse is a California Man, just like Roy Wood. The album’s final cut is To Tell, the great missing b-side to ELO’s Showdown. If you like the standard noir tropes, if you miss Twin Peaks, this is your jam. Less devoted fans may find this on the monochromatic side. But maybe that’s the way Waterhouse wants it – and if so, that’s cool.

Wildly Popular New York Cult Artist Releases a Dark New Single

Singer/personality Anna Copa Cabanna had a big hit with a monthly punk cabaret residency at Joe’s Pub that lasted for years. She was a familiar presence at the legendary first incarnation of Freddy’s Bar before it was razed illegally to built that hideous, already-rusting Brooklyn arena. Most recently, she’s become the frontwoman of Big Balls, the hilarious AC/DC cover band.

Her new single is We Don’t Sleep, an expansive departure into lingering noir pop.

A Broodingly Direct, Terse, Haunting Art-Rock Suite From Cattivo

Is Israeli art-rock duo Cattivo’s haunting, phantasmagorical album Le Marchand De Rêve a lockdown parable, in terms of the bill of goods the lockdowners tried to sell us, even as one rationale after another was debunked and collapsed under the weight of its own lies?

Probably not, actually: the two musicians recorded it before the lockdown, so it’s more likely a tale of personal betrayal. But it’s definitely an album for our time, and it’s up at Bandcamp. Omer Farkash plays guitar and organ and sings in a girl-down-the-well voice. Udi Berner contributes viola, piano, theremin, organ and glockenspiel.

They open with a drifting, point-of-no-return intro and then pace gloomily through the title track, a stately minor-key theme, Farkash’s guitar playing steady, funereal broken chords over a somber haze of keyboard-and-viola orchestration.

Berner plays mostly solo on piano through a triptych of somber preludes: the miniature Avec Sa Jambe De Statu, the Le Grand Parcours Solitaire – how’s that for a a title for the year 2020 – and finally, a more emphatic yet spacious conclusion, Tu Vois Je N’ai Rien Oublié. The album winds up with a final variation with funeral organ and quavery viola.

Darkly Carnivalesqe, Mary Lou Williams-Inspired Themes From Frank Carlberg and Gabriel Bolaños

This is not to imply in any way that the lockdown has been anything other than Hitlerian evil, but it’s forced everybody to think outside the box. We’re now finding out how far outside the box artists have pushed themselves in the past year. One who’s explored unexpected territory is pianist Frank Carlberg, whose phantasmagorical new electroacoustic album of Mary Lou Williams-inspired microtonal music, Charity and Love, a collaboration with Gabriel Bolaños is streaming at Bandcamp.

Carlberg has always had a carnivalesque side, and is a connoisseur of noir, but this is arguably his creepiest record yet. It seems here that his piano is processed to evoke bell-like microtones. Sometimes the effect is akin to an electric piano, sometimes a toy piano, sometimes a carillon. Either way, the effect is persistently disquieting.

Bumping around under the lid, channeling darkly ambered blues, some of the phantasmagoria he so excels at has echoes of stride and boogie and a little crazed tomcat-on-the-keys noise in the album’s title track. Meanwhile, a loop of voices draws closer and closer to the center, becomes painfully unlistenable and fortunately is not a portent for what’s on the rest of the record.

Mary Lou, Mary Blue is a stunningly uneasy, carillonesqe piece that soon goes up and down the funhouse staircase in odd intervals that will keep you on your toes no matter how agitated or woozily surreal the multitracks become. Zodiac Impressions has an echoey, strange web of flitting, rhythmic gestures and Monklike riffs twisted into microtonal shapes, rumbling diesel motor sonics contrasting with the chimes far overhead, decaying to a creepy, sepulchral outro

A brief, murky interlude introduces Mary’s Aries, one of the starker pieces here, its spare, steadily rhythmic, chiming phrases and cascades imbued with the album’s warpiest tonalities. The duo follow that with Broken Stomp, a delicate, marionettish strut encroached on by loops and cascades. The way Bolaños layers the echoes, one long phrase following another, will give you chills.

Big Sky, Dark Clouds is a haunting Lynchian stroll that Carlberg builds emphatically and lets drift away forlornly at the end. Williams’ quote about “Whenever there’s a strong beat, people always want to degrade the music by calling it jazz,” is priceless in context.

The two follow Hop, Skip, Jump, a lively gremlin of a miniature, with the spacious, lingering chords of Water Under the Bridge, strongly evoking the otherworldly, eerie coda of Messiaen’s Quartet For the End of Time. The two close with Waving Goodbye, Carlberg opening with the album’s most darkly carnivalesque, chromatic melody, then taking a twistedly wistful turn that branches off into bizarre multitracks before the piano brings the poignancy back. In a strange way, this makes a good companion piece to Chris Pattishall‘s reinvention of Williams’ Zodiac Suite.

A Haunting Album For Our Time by Iconic Pianist Satoko Fujii

You can tell how serious people are by the extremes they go to. Pianist Satoko Fujii managed to finish her new solo album Hazuki – streaming at Bandcamp – with an icepack on her neck. That may not be as much of a display of superhuman endurance as the two Curt Schillling bloody sock games, but it’s in the same league. Yet, the Boston Red Sox pitcher humbly requested to be taken off the Baseball Hall of Fame ballot. Likewise, Fujii also doesn’t seem to want anything more than the opportunity to sell out a jazz club, as she routinely did before the lockdown. Undeterred, she keeps putting out brilliant albums as a way to stay current and maybe make a few bucks since live music has been criminalized in so many of the parts of the world where she used to play.

The album title is medieval Japanese for “August,” which is when she recorded the record in the unventilated music room in her Tokyo apartment in almost hundred-degree heat last year. How hot is this music? It’s a distinctive, elegantly articulated portrait of the desperation of a career on ice and a world slipping toward a holocaust. As usual, Fujii often goes under the piano lid for all kinds of unorthodox sonics: approximations of an autoharp, a koto or a monsoon crushing the coast, which she intermingles with increasingly portentous, menacing variations on a simple, ominous lefthand riff in the album’s opening track, Invisible.

The second number, Quarantined is part Messaienic, carrilonesque study in making do with what we have and part monstrous apocalyptic tableau: this record is one of Fujii’s most energetic, even explosive albums in recent memory and this is one of its most haunting interludes. She works those close-harmonied chords with even more of a funereal angst in Cluster (possibly a take on the concept of “COVID clusters,” real or imagined). Throughout her work, Fujii typically maintans a distance from the macabre, if only for the sake of suspense, but not here.

Hoffen (German for “hope”) is aptly titled, a matter-of-factly imploring atmosphere infusing this soberly cascading, crescendoing, relentlessly emphatic ballad without words. Fujii builds an even more tightly claustrophobic, raga-like, modal intensity in the next number, Beginning, perhaps ironically one of the album’s catchiest tunes.

She develops Ernesto, a Che Guevara homage, around an artful assemblage of climbing phrases, complete with looming, stygian atmospherics and a seemingly withering parody of generic ballad architecture. Expanding, an older but previously unrecorded tune, begins as a study in leapfrogging modalities but rises toward a hard-hitting, catchy, late 50s Miles Davis-style tableau. Fujii closes the album with Twenty-Four Degrees and its steady, Mompou-esque chimes, a cool settling in after the oppressive conditions under which Fujii made the record. Three months into 2021, and she’s already released two of the strongest contenders for best album of the year: this one, and her Prickly Pear Cactus duo collaboration with vibraphonist Taiko Saito.

Lingering Mystery and Lynchian Sonics From the Royal Arctic Institute

If you have to hang a label on the Royal Arctic Institute, you could call them a cinematic surf band. They have a Lynchian side, a jazzy side and also a space-surf side. Their latest album Sodium Light is streaming at Bandcamp.

The opening number, the vampy Prince of Wisconsin has an easygoing sway, Gramercy Arms keyboardist Carl Bagaly’s bubbly Rhodes piano giving way to bandleader John Leon’s reverby twang and then grit. The distant wistfulness in Christmases At Sea is visceral, the jangly mingle of guitar over David Motamed’s tense bass pulse and Lyle Hysen’s muted drums.

We Begin on Familiar Ground is a real chiller: the big bite at the beginning is just a hint of what’s to come over spare, creepy, mutedly lingering ambience. The trick ending, and the searing guitar solo from And the Wiremen‘s Lynn Wright, are just plain awesome. Is this a lockdown parable? Who knows: the album was recorded clandestinely somewhere in the tri-state area last year.

The fourth track, Different in Sodium Light is a return to balmy Summer Place calm, Wright adding just a tinge of ominousness with his elegant solo. The final cut, Tomorrowmorrowland is the closest thing here to And the Wiremen’s ominous, Morricone-esque southwestern gothic, with a slashing organ break. On a very short list of rock albums released in 2021 so far, this is one of the best.. And it’s available on cassette!

A Picturesque, Psychedelic New Instrumental Soul Album From the Menahan Street Band

Of all the oldschool soul groups that followed Sharon Jones’ ascendancy out of New York in the mid-zeros, Menahan Street Band were the most distinctive, psychedelic and also the darkest. Nobody did noir soul in New York like these guys. And they didn’t even have a singer. It’s been a long time between albums for them, but that’s because everybody in the band is also involved with other projects, or at least was before the lockdown. Their long-awaited new album The Exciting Sounds of Menahan Street Band lives up to its title and is streaming at Bandcamp.

The opening number, Midnight Morning, sums up how these guys work. It’s a steady oldschool 70s groove, bandleader/multi-instrumentalist Thomas Brenneck’s twinkling keys and sheets of organ over the graceful, understated rhythm section of guest bassist “Bosco Mann” – hmmm, now who could that be – and drummer Homer Steinweiss. But the gently gusting harmonies from Leon Michels’ tenor sax and Dave Guy’s trumpet are more bracing than they are balmy.

Regular bassist Nick Movshon takes over with a spare, trebly hollow-body feel on the second track, Rainy Day Lady, Brenneck’s sparse, eerily Satie-esque piano exchanging with the horns and Michels’ organ as the sun pushes the clouds away. They completely flip the script with The Starchaser, a gritty, tensely cinematic, Morricone-ish tableau driven by Brenneck’s trebly, careening guitar and Michels’ trailing sax lines.

Silkworm rises out of dubwise trip-hop mystery with Brenneck on keening portamento synth along with the horns. Cabin Fever is surreal fuzztone Afrobeat; after that, the band return to enigmatic oldschool slow jam territory with Rising Dawn and its blazing layers of guitar.

The album’s most tantalizingly short interlude is Glovebox Pistol, a slinky desert rock theme in wee-hours deep Brooklyn disguise. Likewise, Queens Highway is a slow, spacious after-midnight miniature.

Michels’ organ swirls, the horns waft and Brenneck’s layers of regal soul chords permeate the next track, Snow Day. Brian Profilio takes over the drums on the cheery, dub-inflected miniature Parlour Trick. Mike Deller’s Farfisa loops and washes filter over a funky strut in The Duke, Ray Mason’s trombone beefing up the brass. Stepping Through Shadow has a wistful tiptoe pulse and elegant Stylistics jazz chords.

Devil’s Respite is the album’s best track, a darkly anthemic vamp with couple of unexpected tarpit interludes before the brass kick back in again. They close the record with There Was a Man, a slow, fond 12/8 ballad without words with the feel of a late 60s classic soul instrumental like The Horse. You’ll see this on the best albums of 2021 page here – and there’s going to be one. Spring is coming to New York right now, and it’s about time!

An Edgy Playlist for a Spring Day…and a Great Upcoming Webcast

Spring is here and artists are starting to release more and more singles. Prediction: this year we’re going to see more and more music that was recorded in defiance of the lockdown. For your listening pleasure, here’s a self-guided playlist that’s just a small capsule of some of the very good things bubbling up from under the radar:

Molly Burman‘s Fool Me With Flattery has a noirish 60s rock edge with tropicalia tinges. Great jangly guitar!

Just when you think Paper Citizen‘s Scratching the Surface is totally no wave/skronky retro early 80s dystopia, the big catchy crunchy chorus kicks in. The lyrical message is allusive but spot on: let’s get off the screen before it gets us.

Shannon Clark & the Sugar‘s Let It Ride is not a cover of the Bachman-Turner Overdrive hit but a slow-burning minor key blues original. Remember the Black Lodge in Twin Peaks? This is probably on the jukebox there

Blood Lemon‘s Black-Capped Cry oozes through slow, doomy postmetal minimalism. They’re an Idaho band, and Idaho is a free state, so chances are they recorded this legally!

In elegant, stately Hebrew, singer Shifra Levy sings If I Found Grace over pianist/composer Yerachmiel’s neoromantic crescendos. It’s a Purim piano power ballad. Purim is sort of the Jewish Halloween: it’s not macabre, but all the cool kids dress up in costume and go to parties. Purim is over and Passover is looming, but give it a spin anyway

And speaking of awesome Jewish music, iconic klezmer violinist Alicia Svigals is playing a webcast live from Rockland, New York this March 13 at 7 PM. She chooses her spots for when she does these broadcasts, always gives you plenty of thrills and chills but just as much poignancy and an encyclopedic knowledge of the source material.

Suspensefully Cinematic, High-Spirited New Classical Works From the CCCC Grossman Ensemble

The Chicago Center for Contemporary Composition’s Grossman Ensemble is the brainchild of Augusta Read Thomas. Her game plan was to create a group which could intensely workshop material with composers rather than simply holding a few rehearsals and then throwing a concert. Their album Fountain of Time – streaming at youtube – is contemporary classical music as entertainment: a dynamic series of new works, many of them with a cinematic suspense and tingly moments of noir. Percussionists Greg Beyer and John Corkill, in particular, have a field day with this.

They open with Shulamit Ran’s picturesque Grand Rounds. Oboe player Andrew Nogal, clarinetist Katherine Schoepflin Jimoh, pianist Daniel Pesca and harpist Ben Melsky get to send a shout-out to Messiaen and then a salute to Bernard Herrmann’s Hitchcock film scores. Terse accents from horn player Matthew Oliphant and saxophonist Taimur Sullivan mingle with the acerbic textures of the Spektral Quartet: violinists Clara Lyon and Maeve Feinberg, violist Doyle Armbrust and cellist Russell Rolen. Furtiveness ensues and then the chase is on! The ending is anything but what you would expect. Told you this was fun!

Anthony Cheung’s triptych Double Allegories begins with sudden strikes amid suspenseful, wafting ambience, heavy on the percussion: Herrmann again comes strongly to mind. The midsection is built around a deliciously otherworldly series of microtonal, stairstepping motives, subtle echo effects and ice-storm ambience. The finale comes across as a series of playful but agitated poltergeist conversations….or intermittent stormy bursts. Or both, Tim Munro’s flute and the percussion front and center.

David Dzubay conducts his new work, PHO, which is not a reference to Vietnamese cuisine: the title stands for Potentially Hazardous Objects. The ensemble work every trick in the suspense film playbook – creepy bongos, shivery swells, tense bustles, pizzicato strings like high heels on concrete, breathy atmospherics and hints of a cynical Mingus-esque boogie – for playfully maximum impact. It’s the album’s most animated and strongest piece.

Tonia Ko‘s Simple Fuel was largely improvised while the ensemble were workshopping it; it retains that spontaneity with all sorts of extended technique, pulsing massed phrasing in an AACM vein, conspiratorial clusters alternating with ominous microtonal haze.

A second triptych, by David “Clay” Mettens, winds up the record. Stain, the first segment, bristles with defiantly unresolved microtones, gremlins in the highs peeking around corners and hints of Indian carnatic riffage. Part two, Bloom/Moon pairs deviously syncopated marimba against slithery strings. The textures and clever interweave in Rain provide the album with a vivid coda. Let’s hope we hear more from this group as larger ensembles begin recording and playing again: day after day, the lockdown is unraveling and the world seems to be returning to normal.