New York Music Daily

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Tag: noir music

Julia Haltigan Channels a Simmering Noir Intensity at the Poisson Rouge

Unlikely as it is that the leader of one of the city’s most dynamic bands would be just as entertaining and luridly gripping as a solo act, that’s what noir songwriter Julia Haltigan was Saturday night at the Poisson Rouge. It was a good gig for her, not her usual crowd, which tends to be on the young and wild side, something you might expect for someone who channels a torchy, retro allure and a menace that’s sometimes distant and sometimes in your face. This show gave her a chance to connect with an older, bridge-and-tunnel date-night audience who’d come out for an easy-listening evening with singer-songwriter Vonda Shepard. Haltigan’s regular backing unit has jazz sophistication but also feral energy; playing mostly by herself, with just her trusty vintage Gibson guitar and her reverb pedal, she used the moment to work the corners with a razorwire nuance that matched her songs’ simmering intensity.

Haltigan also seized the opportunity to make points with the audience via a couple of good stories. The first concerned some unexpected consequences in the wake of allowing her electric mandolinist dad – who also made a cameo during the show on smoky blues harp – to serve as an admin at her Facebook fan page. The second looked back to a past decade when people had Blackberries. Haltigan explained that she once went about a year without texting “hi” to anyone for fear of the gizmo translating that as “I’m horny.” Her phone ended up embarrassing her that way a couple of times, once in an exchange with her cousins, before she realized what was going on. That took awhile.

One day during rehearsal, she related the story to her bassist. “Remember that time I borrowed your phone?” he asked her. “I reset the autocorrect.”

That was the comic relief from the songs’ relentless, smoky disquiet. An appropriately spare take of Skeleton Dance, she explained, contemplated a sort of “Mickey Mouse version of death.” But that was the exception. A co-write with the Waterboys’ Mike Scott shifted from an enigmatic stroll to the kind of anthemic chorus you’d expect from that band; a little later, Haltigan led the crowd in a singalong of a similarly pensive, oldtime gospel-flavored Freddie Stevenson song. But her own material was the most memorable. She opened with a slow, haunting oldschool soul-tinged ballad, a woman on the run in her Waitsian hotel room in the wee hours, looking back on what she’ll never have again. From there Haltigan went toward dark rockabilly with the irrepressible Gasoline & Matches and the defiant I Don’t Wanna Fall in Love, airing out her powerful low register. The best song of the night was a murderously scampering border rock anthem that wouldn’t have been out of place at a Karla Rose & the Thorns show.

Haltigan next plays with her band on December 15 at 10:15 PM at the Manderley Bar at the McKittrick Hotel, 532 W 27th St. (10th/11th Aves, south side of the street, look for the little red light at the top of the stoop).

Haunting Noir Psychedelia and a Rare Williamsburg Show by Fernando Viciconte

“Everything you’re saying turned out wrong,” Fernando Viciconte muses. “Busted and broken or dead and gone.” Then a Farfisa keens, way back in the mix. And then the song explodes. The song is Save Me, the opening track on his new album Leave the Radio On, streaming at Bandcamp. And it’s killer. Sort of the lost great Steve Wynn album.

Viciconte hails from Argentina originally. Got his start in LA twenty-odd years ago, fronting a band called Monkey Paw. Eventually landed in Portland, Oregon. Wynn heard him and gave him the thumbs-up, as does his Baseball Project bandmate Peter Buck, who plays a lot of guitar on the album. You could call this noir psychedelia, for the sake of hanging a name on it, and you wouldn’t be off the mark, although there are a lot of different flavors here from both north and south of the border. It’s one of the best records of the year (and it is a record – you can get it on vinyl). Viciconte is making a rare New York swing, with a gig on November 27 at 9 PM at Pete’s. He’s also at the small room at the Rockwood tomorrow night, the 25th at 8.

The album’s second cut, The Dogs, is a lot quieter and vastly more surreal, with a similar sense of desperation and doom: Viciconte airs out his balmy, Lennonesque voice as the fuzztones come in with a swoosh of cymbals and a big exhaust fan blast of reverb. El Interior blends uneasy organ and mariachi horns into its Patagonian gothic resonance, an allusive tale of return and despair.

Icy, trebly layers of acoustic guitar mingle with eerily stately piano as So Loud gets underway, then picks up with a shuffling border rock groove up to a murderous series of drumshots out. The slow, brooding 6/8 anthem Friends and Enemies traces the last days of a dying relationship over Daniel Eccles’ elegaic guitar and pedal steel lines. Viciiconte hints that he’s going to take The Freak in a growling garage rock direction, but instead rises toward circus rock drama and desperation, David Bowie as covered by southwestern gothic supergroup Saint Maybe, maybe.

Paul Brainard’s pedal steel and then Buck’s mandolin sail woundedly above Viciconte’s low-key, defeated vocals and steady acoustic guitar on another elegaic number, the vintage C&W-inflected Kingdom Come:

Stay in pale moonlight
Stand your ground and choose your side
We don’t believe you anymore
We’ve all crawled on your killing floor

Then the band picks up the pace with the backbeat-driven Burned Out Love, part blistering paisley underground anthem, part wickedly catchy late Beatles. The gloomiest number here, White Trees takes a turn back down into spare folk noir:

When you left the table, who followed you home?
The knives and daggers left flesh and bone
The moon moon was shining on that cursed white stone
And you were crying and crying, trying to let it go

The catchiest yet arguably most haunting of all the tracks is the surreal In Their Heads, with its echoey blend of backward masking and ghostly narrative of childhood memories of an execution. One can only imagine what Viciconte might have witnessed, or heard about, during his early years in Argentina in the days of los desaparecidos. The album winds up on its most Beatlesque note with the title track: “Illusion is only skin deep, like raindrops on your wall,” Viciconte broods, “It all comes to an end in the blink of an eye.” Enjoy this dark masterpiece while we’re all still here.

Psycho Mambos with Gato Loco Saturday Night at BAM Cafe

Gato Loco got their start putting a punk-jazz spin on classic old Cuban son and mambo styles, with low-register instruments: baritone and bass sax, tuba, bass and baritone guitar, among others. Snice then, they’ve expanded their sound with a rotating cast of characters: it wasn’t long before they’d added originals to their set. They had long-running residencies at the old Bowery Poetry Club and the late, lamented Zirzamin. Since then, gigs have been somewhat fewer and further between, especially since frontman/multi-saxophonist Stefan Zeniuk is so highly sought after as a sideman. It’s never exactly certain just what Gato Loco lineup is going to show up, but it’s a safe bet that their gig this Saturday night, November 21 at 10 PM at BAM Cafe will be a party.

Their most recent show at another frequent haunt, Barbes, was this past June, where they were joined by a hotshot Strat player along with Tim Vaugn on trombone, Tuba Joe, Ari F-C on bass and the brilliant Kevin Garcia (also of another similarly estimable noir band, Karla Rose & the Thorns) on drums. They opened with an agitatedly pulsing chase scene of sorts that rose to a wailing, enveloping forestorm as the rhythm went completely haywire along with the rest of the band, faded down into cinders and then sprang up again in a split second. Zeniuk’s ghostly bass sax mingled with lingering, reverbtoned Lynchian licks from the guitar as the slow, slinky second number got underway, then shifted shape into a warmly moonlit tableau before rising toward macabre Big Lazy territory. From there they segued into a dark clave groove, Vaugn punching holes in the sky, Garcia tumbling elegantly in the background as the horns joined forces, terse and somewhat grim as they went way down low. The careening, axe-murderer sprint to the finish line was one of the most exhilarating moments of any show anywhere this year – and probably one of the loudest ever at little Barbes.

From there the band went epic, making a slow, big-sky highway theme out of a wistful Gulf Coast folk-inspired tune, slowly elevating to a lively, scampering fanfare, then down again, Vaugn pulling the rest of the group along with a long, tightly unwinding staccato solo. The low instruments’ murky noir sonics contrasted with the guitarist’s spare, sunbaked blues  and Memphis soul lines as the next number got underway, Zeniuk finally signaling with a snort that it was time to build another funeral pyre on top of the serpentine groove. The best song of the night was a gloomy bolero, played in a dynamically shifting vein as Sergio Mendoza might have done it, featuring a muted trumpet solo, another pyrotechnically noisy interlude and an unexpected, clickety-clack dixieland outro. Name another band with as many flavors as these crazy cats.

The Amphibious Man Bring Their Creepy, Cinematic New England Noir to the South Slope

Hartford, Connecticut six-piece The Amphibious Man call their music “road slaw.” It’s dark and haphazard, yet purposeful and tuneful, with enough of an over-the-guardrail vibe to make it genuinely menacing. Reverbtoned surf lines sit side by side with blasts of pure punk rock, cheap 60s b-movie mystery soundtrack sonics, coyly creepy spacerock organ, plus grey-noise synth and guitar effects that look back to the earliest days of psychedelia but also instantly identify the band’s sound as being from right now. Their latest album Witch Hips is streaming at Bandcamp; they’re playing Fifth Estate Bar, 506 5th Ave (12th & 13th Sts), in that nebulous neighborhood between Park Slope and Sunset Park on November 20 at 10 PM. Ghoulpunks Danse De Sade play afterward at around 11, cover is TBA. You can take the F to 7th Ave. and walk downhill, or the R to 9th St, which is closer, and go up.

The album’s opening track, Fischer Cat veers back and forth between swaying, reverbtoned Ventures clang and roaring gutter rock; the band layers squirrelly Mystery Science Theatre sonics under the guitars as it winds out. Jimmy – as in the leering mantra “Jimmy doesn’t like this” – would be straight-up 70s proto-metal all the way through if not for the blippy, minimalist fuzz-synth verse. South Whitney Pizza, which may or may not be about or inspired by a hometown pie-and-slice joint, has a murky 80s lo-fi new wave garage feel with its oily mudpuddle bass riffs over a steady, watery guitar tune.

The album’s best track, Halloweed, brings to mind what Big Lazy might have sounded like in their earliest days exploring lo-fi noir cinematics before they started playing out. A slow, lingering, distantly bolero-tinged noir guitar intro fuels the song’s rise toward fullscale Lynchian horror, then goes in a colder but equally macabre direction. Hartman Park artfully and enigmatically comes together out of more of that syncopated quasi-surf. The swaying, sarcastic, almost lullabyish The Devil’s Hopyard follows a similar tangent toward a hypnotically dancing back-and-forth swing. The album’s final track is the blasting Tombstone Luvin, which blends an eerily anthemic lo-fi post-new wave ambience with gritty, punk-inspired proto-metal. Guitarists Jason Principi and Mike Myrbeck, bassists Jake Downey and Jackie Hopkins and keyboardist/drummers Adam Heege and Shaun Burns get extra props for originality and ominous outside-the-box ideas. You might not think that an album that sounds like this might be one of the best to come over the transom here this year, but it is.

A Killer Murder Ballad Monday Coming Up in Brooklyn

What’s the likelihood of seeing two bands as brilliantly creepy as Bobtown and Charming Disaster on the same bill? And one of New York’s great lead guitarists, and one of the most distinctive banjo players on the planet, and a rising star in the cello-rock demimonde? It happened at the second installment of the new, monthly Murder Ballad Mondays series at Branded Saloon. It’s a salon held in a saloon – rather than an open mic, it’s a place for eclectic artists to prowl around in the darkest corners of the human psyche, pay homage to psychopathic urges in song from across the centuries, and work up new material in that hallowed tradition.

Charming Disaster – guitarist Jeff Morris from the estimable, phantasmagorical  latin noir/art-rock band Kotorino and Ellia Bisker from the similarly-inclined Sweet Soubrette and Funkrust Brass Band – run the show here, and treated the crowd to an all-too-brief, barely half-hour set of menacingly harmony-driven songs that veered from chamber pop to noir cabaret to circus rock. It was the one point in a deviously fun night of music where the songs deviated from the topic of killing to simply chronicling the intricacies of all sorts of troubled relationships, some mythical, some set in the here and now. Morris played with just a touch of distortion on his old hollowbody Gibson as Bisker wound through graceful lead lines on her electric ukulele.

Bobtown – one of the best loved and most menacing bands in folk noir – opened the show, percussionist/keyboardist Katherine Etzel, singer Jen McDearman, guitarist Karen Dahlstrom, bassist Fred Stesney and lead guitarist/banjo player Alan Lee Backer treating the crowd to some unexpected but typically ominous new material, the sparkling harmonies of the women in the band flying overhead. Backer then took a detour into his own vintage-style Americana and C&W, followed by folk singers Sarah Durning and then Karen Poliski parsing the classics with some murderous numbers from the repertoire of Gillian Welch and others.

The  most original of all the covers was a mind-warping take of Helter Skelter, played solo on banjo by Andrew Vladeck of jangly, Americana-inflected anthem band Fireships. Badass, eclectic cello-rock firestarter Patricia Santos (also of Kotorino) went deep into rustic blues/gospel mode with a new one of her own as well as another Gillian Welch tune. Comic relief was provided by Erica Smith‘s bass player taking a rare turn on piano. He’d written a song on the way to the show – a politically-inspired ghoulabilly tune – but couldn’t read the lyrics he’d scribbled moments before on the D train. Backer’s penlight came to the rescue.

This coming Monday’s installment, starting at 8 PM, features an even more auspicious lineup: powerful, soul-infused dark acoustic songwriter Jessi Robertson; brilliant Americana/janglerock tunesmith and harmonium player Jessie Kilguss; the similarly intense, historically-fixated Robin Aigner; songwriter Arthur Schupbach’s John Prine-inspired Donald & Lydia duo project; parlor pop songwriter Juliet Strong and more.

And Charming Disaster have a gig on Saturday night, November 14 at 8 at the Slipper Room; cover is $15.


Menacingly Alluring Noir Rocker Raquel Vidal & the Monday Men Roll Into Manhattan This Thursday

As Cold Spring, New York multi-instrumentalist/bandleader Raquel Vidal tells it, the Monday Man was a particularly valuable member of the circus. He’d be in charge of stealing fresh laundry off the line as the circus train rolled out of town at the start of a busy week after the previous weekend’s engagement. Together with her tight, swinging noir Americana band the Monday Men, Vidal rolls into Manhattan for a gig at 9 PM on November 12 at Shrine uptown. If you’re a little short of ten grand for a VIP ticket to that stupefyingly overpriced Neko Case show in Fort Greene, Vidal and her alluringly Lynchian songs will hit the spot.

There isn’t a whole lot of Vidal’s stuff online, but every bit of it is killer. You can watch her and the band from the front doing the ominously shuffling Black Cat – with a menacingly spiky guitar solo from Mark Westin – or from behind the drums, doing the purposefully plaintive Pure Heart at a Hurricane Sandy relief concert upstate in Beacon a couple of years ago. She’s also got a Reverbnation page with a handful of studio tracks that make room for the nuances and dangerous edges of her voice over the band’s similarly menacing, tight groove.

“I’ve earned the right to drown my eyes and drink all night, but baby I won’t cry,” Vidal intones with a steely nonchalance on the propulsively jangly studio version of Black Cat. The studio take of Pure Heart turns out to be a noir swing cautionary tale: “Don’t sleep your life away, there are no make-up days,” Vidal warns. Tell – as in “Tell all your friends there was a who’s who of every kind of sin” – takes that Gatsbyesque party narrative to its sardonic, sinister conclusion over the syncopated swing of bassist Seth Masten and drummer Todd Guidice.

Leather Trunk works a methodically creepy bolero-rock groove in the same vein as Karla Rose & the Thorns, set “On a shore where your dreams lay dying,” as Vidal puts it, a more retro, literate spin on Nancy Sinatra Vegas noir. When Vidal hits that last, muted line, “Let’s pretend that we were once in love,” the effect is gently devastating. The last of the Reverbnation tracks is Doin’ What They Told Me, a snarlingly menacing, twin guitar-fueled stomp that wouldn’t be out of place in the Eilen Jewell catalog, looking toward a doomed future date “when the market falls.” That lowlit back room a couple of blocks south of 135th could become a Twin Peaks set for about an hour this Thursday night.

Iconic Noir Pianist Ran Blake Offers a Dark Salute to the Great George Russell

It’s autumn in New York. Finally, in this overheated age, we’ve made it there. And what better way to conclude Halloween week than with the latest album by the definitive noir pianist of our era, Ran Blake, which opens and then after fifteen additional tracks, concludes with that song? The cd, Ghost Tones, a tribute to Blake’s old pal George Russell, sadly isn’t streaming anywhere on the web, but you can get a sense of its magically shadowy gravitas from the momentary clips up at cdbaby.

Throughout the record, the saturnine majesty of Blake’s playing is undiminished. Like Dave Brubeck at age eighty, he’s never played with more depth or poignancy. The album is a mix of pieces by Russell – one of the great individualists of the last half-century, an underrated but vastly influential composer who shares Blake’s dark sensibility – alongside Blake originals and a handful of chilly, sepulchral reinventions of jazz standards. The album’s opening track is a clinic in how Blake, playing solo, uses his signature, Messiaen-esque close harmonies to take a moody ballad far deeper into the night than its composer ever dreamed. Then, to wind up the album, Blake offers a spare, guardedly optimistic, far more straight-up take that hews much more closely to the original.

Alice Norbury (Blake’s shout-out to Russell’s wife) opens stately and stern, but then the clouds lift a bit, Blake multitracking his piano with string synth, broadening his usual noir cinematic sweep. As becomes crystal clear, this is a portrait of a profound and formidable personality. Drunmer Charles Burchell’s clave drives the first Russell composition, Living Time, with a white-knuckle tension as bassist Brad Barrett bubbles, Blake swirls and ripples and the horns – Peter Kenagy on trumpet, Aaron Hartley on trombone – punch in, Doug Pet’s tenor sax soaring like a vulture overhead. It’s 70s noir Morricone taken to the next level.

Blake’s solo piano miniature, Paris, perfectly captures that city’s twilit, rain-drenched angst amid the ghosts of centuries past as it rises to an insistent peak, again recalling Messiaen. Telegram From Gunther, a tongue-in-cheek miniature by Blake and another old third-stream pal, Gunther Schuller, makes an intro to the cumulo-nimbus electroacoustic industrial decay of Biography.

The best-known Russell number here, Stratusphunk, gets stripped to its austere, rust-tinged chassis as a solo piano piece. Another, Jack’s Blues rises artfully from a wary foghorn fanfare to an alllusive stroll through a desolate South Street Seaport or Boston Wharf of the mind, lowlit by Kenagy’s Miles-like muted trumpet. Then Blake makes a good segue with a solo take of Rodger & Hart’s Manhattan, taking that same tangent to its logical, briskly walking conclusion. After that, Russell’s Ballad of Hix Blewitt marks a return to plaintive, cinematic sweep with strings and Dave Fabris’ resonant pedal steel.

One of the most dynamically menacing Blake solo numbers here is his Cincinnati Express, building to twisted ragtime and then back. With its bell-like multi-keys,Vertical Form VI shows just how far into the avant garde – think Louis Andriessen – Russell could go and includes a sample from a 1998 London big band concert recording by the Living Time Orchestra. After Blake’s ominoulsy swaying solo version of Jacques Crawls, a spare, spacious take of Russell’s Lonely Place makes a brilliantly apt segue, Pet’s desolate, wee-hours upper-Broadway sax and Hartley’s trombone enhancing the ambience. Another well-covered Russell tune, Ess-Thetic, gets an insistent, menacingly circular solo piano treatment; there’s also an austerely reinvented take of You Are My Sunshine introduced by vertigo-inducing strings and steel. It’s noir music in its most brooding, bittersweet, distantly heartbreaking perfection, and ought to help introduce the brilliance and individualism of Russell to a new audience.

There’ll be a best albums of 2015 page here at the end of the year, and this will be on it. On the other hand, this album deserves a page all its own: there’s nothing in its category released this year that can compare. Blake gets a likely star-studded 80th birthday tribute at Jordan Hall, 290 Huntington Ave in Boston, his longtime New England Conservatory stomping ground, on November 13 at 7:30 PM.

Imaginative, Lynchian Chanteuse Karina Deniké Slinks Into Brooklyn and Manhattan This Weekend

Darkly eclectic San Francisco singer/organist Karina Deniké plays with her band at Union Hall tonight, October 30 at 9:30 PM for $12. Then she’s at Cake Shop on Nov 2 at the same time. Her excellent latest album, Under Glass, is streaming at Bandcamp – it’s a ride packed with both thrills and subtlety, the rare collection of songs that’s so good that you don’t notice that there’s no bass on any of them.

“First you rev it, then you move it, but you never park it here for good,” Deniké sings on the bouncy, oldschool 60s style number, Park It, that opens the album. Anchors Away opens with ethereal, creepy vocal harmonies that bring to mind late, great New York rockers DollHouse, then shifts back and forth: “What shall we do with a drunken sailor?” ponders Denike with a tender menace that brings to mind Karla Rose in a rare semi-vulnerable moment.

Aviatrix, a starkly strutting Weimar cabaret waltz, is over way too soon. Musee Mecanique, the album’s title track more or less, blends layers of funereal vintage organ over a simple lo-fi 70s drum machine beat: imagine a more soul-oriented Siouxsie. Then the lurid ambience really sets in with Sideshow, Aaron Novik’s bass clarinet lingering under blippy organ and Meric Long’s staccato reverb guitar: “Do we get whatever we want at the Sideshow?” Deniké asks, completely deadpan. The song wouldn’t be out of place in the Carol Lipnik catalog.

Boxing Glove brings back the cabaret strut, fueled by pianist Michael McIntosh’s blend of ragtime and grand guignol. The best track is the menacing, plaintive bolero-soul ballad Stop the Horses, reverb-drenched guitar and Eric Garland’s vibraphone echoing in from the shadows: it draws a comparison to Marianne Dissard’s brooding desert rock. Then the band picks up the pace with Havin’ a Go, a deliciously upbeat mashup of early 60s soul, doo-wop and macabre garage rock with a decidedly ambiguous Novik solo.

Golden Kimonos opens with what’s either the vibes or an ominously twinkling glockenspiel setting on the organ, then picks up with a moody 80s sway. Balmy backing vocals bolster the album’s sparest track, the distantly gospel-tinged soul ballad You’re So Quiet. Deniké offers sympathy for the doomed on the metaphorically-loaded Persephone, Bay Area tenor sax great Ralph Carney (who just played an AWESOME show at Barbes a few weeks back) adding his signature, darkly soulful touch. The album winds up with the stately, elegantly poignant piano ballad Až Budeš Velký, Deniké drawing on her heritage as the child of expat Czech dissidents. Albums like this make every night Halloween – or Blue Velvet – if you’re in the mood.

A Menacing Masterpiece and an Annual Halloween Celebration from Pam Fleming’s Dead Zombie Band

Trumpeter Pam Fleming‘s Dead Zombie Band are the inventors and possible sole practitioners of a relatively new and incredibly fun style of music: Halloween jazz. Fleming, who’s played with everybody from Natalie Merchant to roots reggae legend Burning Spear, brings her signature eclecticism to the band’s album Rise and Dance, streaming at cdbaby. Leading an all-star cast of New York talent, she’s playing the band’s annual Fort Greene Halloween dance party starting at around 6 PM this Saturday on Waverly Avenue between between Willoughby and DeKalb Avenues. Take the C train to Clinton-Washington.

The band slowly rises, as if from the grave, as the album gets underway, Fleming’s somber trumpet leading the funeral procession. And then they’re off on a wry reggae pulse, Tine Kindemann’s singing saw flickering in the background. Fleming’s fiendishly fun vocals are the icing on this orange-and-black cake. Fleming’s trumpet, Karen Waltuch’s viola, Jenny Hill’s tenor sax and Buford O’Sullivan’s trombone all have chromatically delicious fun. It’s a lot more Black Ark noir than it is Scooby Doo.

Zombie Drag is a slow, muted, misterioso carnival theme: the way Fleming slowly marches the horn chart out of the mist, then back and forth, is Gil Evans-class inventive. Pianist Rachelle Garniez goes for icy Ran Blake noir on The Bell behind Fleming’s whispery, ghoulish recitation. Then Garniez – who’s also playing Barbes at 8 on Nov 5 – takes over on the similarly crepuscular Two Lovers and winds it up with a gorgously ghostly improvisation that dies on the vine far to soon.

The narrative gets very, very ghostly for a bit, Fleming’s ominous intonement backed by Ursel Schlicht brushing the piano strings, a “cackle cocktail party” and then the band goes up into Satan Is Waitin’, a mashup of saloon blues, Danny Elfman soundttrack shenanigans, jajouka (dig Jessica Lurie’s alto sax solo!), Jimmy Smith (that’s Adam Klipple on organ) and oldschool soul. After that, there’s some storytelling – imagine a Dr. Seuss Halloween tale set to Hollywood Hills noir boudoir soul.

Klipple’s droll roller-rink organ anchors some pretty joyous solos from tenor saxophonist Lily White, Hill (on baritone now), and Martha Hyde on alto throughout the reggae-soul number Rise and Dance – hey, if you were a zombie, you’d be pretty psyched to be getting out of the cold ground at last. Forget anything you’ve heard before: this is the real Monster Mash.

A Deliciously Grim, Old-Fashioned Multimedia Creation from Curtis Eller and the New Town Drunks

This year’s most memorable and individualistic Halloween artifact is Baudelaire in a Box: Songs of Anguish. It’s an ep by charismatic noir Americana songwriter/banjoist Curtis Eller in collaboration with Chapel Hill folk noir/circus rock band the New Town Drunks. And it’s a whole lot more than just a playlist or a cd. It’s a digital release – streaming at Bandcamp – that comes with a handcrafted volvelle that allows you to follow along with the songs’ grim imagery through a window above the wheel of Jamie B. Wolcott‘s colorful, matching illustrations underneath. Such “spinnies,” as they were called in the 19th century, are cousins of the flipbook and predecessors of the crankie. The text of the four tracks comprises imaginative English translations of four poems from Charles Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal. The songs were written for performances of the “serialized recasting” of Les Fleurs Du Mal by Chicago’s Theater Oobleck.

Eller sings the first cut, The Joyful Dead (Le Mort Joyeux: for purposes of consistency between languages, we’re gonna stick with title case here, ok?). An alternate translation could be “The Contented Corpse.” Louis Landry’s macabrely twinkling glockenspiel fuels the simmering intro before the track gets going with a haphazardly jaunty bounce.

Eller also contributes The Albatross (L’Albatros), done as one of his signature noir blues numbers over a subtle backdrop of accordion and funeral organ textures behind his animated vocals and stark banjo. The translation is vivid: Eller goes the big picture rather than word-for-word, and he doesn’t bother with a rhyme scheme. The mashup of the final stanza is artful to the extreme, driving home Baudelaire’s equation of the tormented poet to the tortured bird amid the drunken sailors, crippled beneath the weight of its vast wings.

The New Town Drunks’ first track is Always the Same (Semper Eadem), a menacing tango sung with unselfconscious angst by Diane Koistinen over a pouncing beat, Doug Norton’s ominously chromatic Balkan accordion swirling through the mix. This particular translation, voicing Baudelaire’s proto-existentialist anguish over distractions from the inevitable, is a challenging one and takes some poetic license. The band’s other song is Le Vampire. Interestingly, they set Baudelaire’s savage kiss-off of a lyric to upbeat after-the-rain jazz-pop livened with Robo Jones’ trombone. As short albums go, there’s been nothing released this year that compares with this, unfair as that comparison is, considering the source of the lyrics. And the package is an Antiques Road Show type of piece, a limited edition bound to appreciate in value as the years go by.


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