New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Tag: noir music

Greek Judas Bring Their Ferociously Psychedelic Middle Eastern-Flavored Metal Back to Barbes

There’s so much going on in this city that even with the ongoing gentrification-driven brain drain depleting the talent base, there’s more good music than a single blog could conceivably cover. Which creates a triage situation. Doesn’t it make the most sense to cast as wide a net as possible rather than focusing on one scene, which in this city, these days, is probably more of a micro-scene anyway? On the other hand, some bands are so much fun that you want to see them again. For example, this blog caught Greek Judas’ first-ever show at Barbes last year, which was so interesting, and so much different from anything else in town right now. Their next gig is back at Barbes at 10 PM on February 25.

The prospect of seeing the group – who do artsy metal covers of obscure, Middle Eastern-flavored gangster songs from the 1920s and 1930s Greek underground – on Lemmy’s birthday (RIP) was impossible to resist, especially since it was an early afterwork show. That made it easy to run to the G train afterward before the line went dead and hightail it over to Williamsburg to grab a couple of drinks at Duff’s. And then head up to Grand Victory, where Karla Rose & the Thorns finally hit the stage just a little before midnight, then rampaged through a murderously intense set featuring a couple of tunes by the Misfits and Buzzcocks in addition to Rose’s own misterioso minor-key noir narratives.

Greek Judas’ show that evening, as you would expect, was a lot tighter than their debut back in August. The group have been mining the crime rhymes and drugrunning anthems popular among Greek Cypriot refugees of a hundred years ago for awhile, first doing them pretty straight-up under the name Que Vlo-Ve (whose Bandcamp page has an intriguing handful of free downloads). But electrifying the songs (Judas – get it?) seemed inevitable. Guitarist Wade Ripka now switches back and forth between his six-sring and a lapsteel, which he runs through a Fender tube amp with the reverb way up for a ferocious blast of sound. His six-string counterpart Adam Good draws on his chops as A-list Middle Eastern oudist: at this show, the two traded searing, chromatically slashing minor-key verses and ended up stomping all over the end of each others’ phrases to seal the deal.

At both this show and their most recent one at the end of last month at Barbes, frontman Quince Marcum ran his vocals through the board clean without any effects rather than using the trippy, pitch-twisting pedalboard he brought the first time out. He played horn on one of the final numbers, singing in Greek in a strong, resonant baritone. From the perspective of a non-Greek speaker, it’s impossible to get what they do on more than a musical level, but Marcum offers helpful translations and has an unselfconscious passion for the songs. Crack whores, hash smugglers, henpecked husbands, busted beggars trying to outwit the cops, gangsters in jail plotting their next move (let’s get our ouds and jam!) all make appearances. The band’s usual choice of closing number sounds like the Bad Brains.

It’s hard to figure what kind of ceiling any band in town has these days: there’s more money to be made from the road than there is here, that’s for sure. But at the very least, on an artistic level anyway, Greek Judas are on the way up. If only for the cred of being able to saying you were there when it happened, if dark and assaultive sounds are your thing, now’s the time to catch them.

Gato Loco Play Explosive, Cinematic Noir Latin Sounds at Joe’s Pub

When a trio of smart, stylish, resourceful women – Nicole (a.k.a. Coley), Lindsay and her vivacious mom Sue – conspire to take over the best table in the house, and then ask you to join them, do you resist? That would have been impossible. Things like that happen at a Gato Loco show.

It’s hard to imagine a set of more explosively dynamic noir music anywhere in New York this year than the “psycho mambo” group’s show at Joe’s Pub a week ago Friday. The energy was Gogol Bordello-level – and they did it without lyrics, and with a pair of frontmen who played bass sax and trombone, respectively. Bandleader/multi-reedman Stefan Zeniuk’s expansively cinematic, toweringly crescendoing latin themes smoldered and slunk and scampered and often blazed for minutes on end, carried at gale force by an amazing band.

Zeniuk started out uncharacteristically on tenor sax but was soon back on his usual bass model, switching back and forth several times, often in the same song, at least when he wasn’t playing bass clarinet – this guy lives for the lows. Teaming with him to anchor them  were “Tuba Joe” Exley and bassist Ari Folman-Cohen (leader of exciting new ska band Pangari & the Socialites). Trombonist Tim Vaughn spent the duration of the show centerstage, literally, and made the most of it, whether looming, blasting or negotiating Zeniuk’s haripin-turn changes with soulful, resonant aplomb. Drummer Kevin Garcia – also of the similarly menacing Karla Rose & the Thorns – teamed with percussionist Matt Hurley as the grooves rose from lowdown to frenetic and everywhere in between while the trumpets of Jackie Coleman and Evan Honse, Rachel Drehmann’s french horn and Lily Maase’s eclectically virtuosic guitar blazed overhead.

The night’s opening number, The Big Sleep, began with Hurley’s rumbling digeridoo, then Maase led them into an ominous stroll with hints of mariachi and swing jazz, Zeniuk’s sirening solo kicking off a twisted New Orleans theme that they finally wound down from, slowly and elegantly. Die, You Sucka! – the first of a trio of sureral, darkly frantic Keystone Kops themes – sounded like the Bad Brains taking a stab at scoring a Mack Sennett film, then Garcia wound it down with a misterioso rimshot groove, Maase’s savage chords bringing it back to redline as the trumpets punched at the ceiling.

The Sound & The Fury rode a slow sway, an Isaac Hayes soul criminnal theme with a John Zorn punk jazz edge giving way to a cruel parody of a patriotic march, interchanging with oldschool disco and a bit of beefed-up, brassy lowrider funk. The best number of the night, counterintuitively, was the quiest and most morose one, Orphans of the Storm, a hypnotic, Middle Eastern-tinged dirge: Zeniuk’s edgily chromatic bass solo, going way into the depths, was both the low point – in a sonic sense – and high point of the show.

From there they sprinted through another Keystone Kops number: as over-the-top as it was, the low/high contrasts in Zeniuk’s chart, and how the band edged it almost imperceptibly into creepier territory were artful to the extreme, and Zeniuk’s phony go-go interlude was just plain funny. A lingering, Cuban-tinged waterside nocturne, a lustrously melancholy, gospel-tinged interlude for the horns and a pretty straight-up salsa number that suddenly morphed into a frantic circus rock narrative were next on the bill.

They reprised Die You Sucka! even more wildly then they played it the first time around, Maase’s jagged riffage underneath the night’s most far-out free jazz-influenced passage, then hitting a vaudevillian pulse on the outro. They closed with Caridad, which sounded like a Cuban version of a moody mid-70s Burning Spear reggae theme, Maase finally getting a solo and a big round of applause for her sunbaked, psychedelic funk explosion. They took it out doublespeed with a series of irresistibly funny false endings. And a terrorist baritone sax quartet – Kevin Danenberg, Jessica Lurie, Josh Sinton and Maria Eisen – stormed in and made a surprise appearance midway through the show before joining onstage at the end. All this, except maybe for the terrorists, is immortalized on Gato Loco’s album The Enchanted Messa.

A Masterpiece of Noir and Southwestern Gothic by Bronwynne Brent

One of the best collections of dark Americana songwriting released over the past several months is Mississippi-born singer-guitarist Bronwynne Brent’s Stardust, streaming at Spotify. It has absolutely nothing in common with the Hoagy Carmichael song. What it does recall is two other masterpieces of noir, retro-tinged rock: Karla Rose’s Gone to Town and Julia Haltigan‘s My Green Heart. Brent’s simmering blue-flame delivery draws equally on jazz, blues, torch song and oldschool C&W, as does her songwriting.

The album’s opening track,The Mirror sets the stage, twangy Telecaster over funereal organ and Calexico’s John Convertino’s tumbling drums. “The mirror knows the cards that were dealt,” Brent accuses, “You were never there.” Keith Lowe’s ominously slinky hollowbody bass propels Another World, its eerie bolero-rock verse hitched to Brent’s dreamy chorus. She could be the only tunesmith to rhyme “felon” with “compellin’.”

The unpredictably shifting Don’t Tell Your Secrets to the Wind picks up from spare and skeletal to menacingly lush, with biting hints of Romany, mariachi and klezmer music: Nancy Sinatra would have given twenty years off her life for something this smartly orchestrated. By contrast, the banjo-fueled Devil Again evokes the dark country of Rachel Brooke. “You’re just a prisoner watching shadows dance, dancing to your grave,” Brent intones, then backs away for a twangy Lynchian guitar solo. She keeps the low-key moodiness going throughout the softly shuffling Dark Highway, Hank Williams spun through the prism of spare 60s Dylan folk-pop.

When You Said Goodbye brings back the southwestern gothic ambience, with artful hints of ELO art-rock. “When you said goodbye I knew that I would die alone alone,” Brent muses: the ending will rip your heart out. By contrast. Heart’s On Fire, an escape anthem, builds to more optimistic if wounded territory:”Well, you learn from your mistakes, sometimes the prisoner gets a break,” Brent recalls.

Already Gone builds shimmery organ-fueled nocturnal ambience over a retro country sway: spare fuzztone guitar adds a surreal Lee Hazlewood touch. Bulletproof gives Brent a swinging noir blues background while she shows off her tough-girl side: it wouldn’t be out of place in the Eilen Jewell catalog.

Heartbreaker leaves the noir behind for a spare, fingerpicked folk feel, like Emmylou Harris at her most morose. Lay Me Down blends echoes of spare Britfolk, mariachi, creepy western swing and clever references to the Ventures: “Distance grows between us, doesn’t that just free us?” Brent poses. She ends the album on a vividly Faulknerian note: “Guess I can’t stop drinking, not today,” her narrator explains,” You may think that I’m lonely and running out of time, but I’m not the marrying kind.” Add this to your 3 AM wine-hour playlist: it’ll keep the ghosts of the past far enough away where they can’t get to you.

Brooding Folk Noir and Lynchian Janglerock from Jaye Bartell

Jaye Bartell plays spare, Lynchian folk rock. His album Loyalty – streaming at Noisetrade – poses more questions than it answers. Bartell sings in a clear baritone with a bit of a wounded edge, amplifying his enigmatic lyrics. He invites you into his brooding, allusive narratives, throws a series of images at you and lets you figure out what kind of trouble is going down, or went down ago; who’s dying, or maybe who’s already died. The songs trace the narrative of a doomed relationship, although not all of them may relate to that. What is clear is that all things dear die here.

There’s a lot of tremolo and reverb on Bartell’s simple, straightforwardly layered acoustic and electric guitar tracks; bass and drums are spare and minimal, enhancing what is often a bedroom folk-noir feel. Bartell really has his way with a catchy hook: the melodies look back equally to pensive 60s Laurel Canyon psych-folk as well as to 80s goth. Both the Velvet Underground ande the Smiths are obvious influences, but melodically rather than as an affectation.

The ominously twangy opening track, Lilly, situates Bartell’s narrator in a metaphorical cave:

It’s the best place for a bird
Who wouldn’t know what a home was
Even if you built him a birdhouse and filled it with string…
Miles of tissue and stitches
Which you can use on the days when I fell to the base of the cave
Lilly
I woke up screaming
Fuck ’em
I’ve got nothing
But I’ve got guts

The more enticing second track, Come See takes a classic 60s Jamaican rocksteady melody and makes Orbisonesque acoustic-electric rock out of it. The accusatory Dance with Me starts slow and then picks uip, then picks up – New York underground legend Dan Penta comes to mind. “Dance with me, so that all of the people see the bane and blame and reeling, dance with me,” Bartell taunts, quietly.

With its uneasily homey metaphors, The Face Was Mine could refer to a dissolved marriage, or possibly the death of parent, or a parent figure: like everything ehse here, the answer unclear. Bartell continues the theme with He Can’t Rise, slowly building out of hypnotic, echoey minimalism to an anthemic Jesus & Marcy Chain-ish chorus.

The Papers starts out as a noir strut and then swing, with a Tom Waits bluesiness – it’s another accusatory number:

You think that you feel bad because he is around
But you feel bad because you feel bad
He always took off his shoes when he walked on the grass
You feel bad because you feel bad

The album’s title track is its jangliest, most 80s-influenced moment. “To know the weight and length of snakes won’t bring sleep to a troubled evening,” Bartell observes. Your Eyelashes is where the story comes together; it’s both the most stark and angriest cut. Which contrasts with the album’s most ornate and anthemic, J&MC-like track, Oldest Friend, closing the album on a gospel-tinged, elegaic note. Put this on your phone and walk the perimeter of McGoldrick Park in Greenpoint some gloomy Sunday, where Bartell reputedly comes up with some of this stuff.

Crime Jazz Themes for Running from the Law

[based on true events – details have been altered to protect the innocent]

It’s six in the morning, New Year’s Day, still dark, as the man in the long black coat looks across the park and sets a vector. He moves briskly, purposefully, but not quite in a straight line. Having walked this far after the previous night’s festivities finally broke up, the long way around the perimeter is not an option, even though the grounds are still legally closed til sunrise.

He never would have done this as a child. Even now, in this supposedly safe, yuppified, whitewashed city, if there’s one place to get mugged after a New Year’s Eve party, this is it. The man makes a fast, deliberate if less than steady path through grass and stands of maple. If there’s anyone else in the park at this hour, they aren’t making their presence known.

Right where the trees end and the lawn begins, about a hundred feet from the exit, the man sees the police in the 4X4 almost at the second that they see him. If he had been sober, he would have maintained a steady pace. But he flinches, and as he recovers from that split-second hesitation, the lights atop the 4X4 begin to flash and it slowly begins to advance. Without looking back, the man breaks into a sprint as the light ricochets off the remaining trees and the wall just past the park. There most likely won’t be any trains at this hour, but it he can make it out and down into the adjacent subway station, at the very least he can elude capture.

With a leap, he makes it over a low wire fence and keeps going. In the predawn silence, the muted engine and crackle of tires over soft, rocky ground are audible. When he reaches a second fence, barely twenty feet from the street, he’s watching the refraction of the lights closing in behind him. Weighed down just enough from the four-pack of Polish beer in his backpack – something he won’t discover until later – his foot catches the top of the fence and he goes down, twisting his knee as he lands, awkwardly.

The impact keeps him going, skidding across the grass. Scrambling to his feet, pushing himself upright with his hands and his other knee, he accelerates just as the jeep does, slows for a second, wincing and then resuming his pace as the subway stairs beckon. He descends rapidly, watching his feet this time, just as the cop car and its two occupants reach the exit and then pull to a stop.

Down in the subway, the token booth is closed. The man hesitates for a second, then reaches in his pocket for his subway card, quickly swipes it and pushes through the turnstile, wincing again. Briskly, but with a noticeable limp, he moves down the platform and pulls in close behind a pillar near the other exit. In a worst-case scenario, he can leave the station almost as fast as he came in. He wraps his coat tightly around his legs and leans against the pillar, motionless.

Upstairs, the officer behind the wheel of the 4X4 glances out, then gives a quizzical look to his partner in the adjacent seat. The other officer shrugs, takes a deep breath. “Nah,” he laughs. The driver smiles, pushes the gearshift up into reverse, and backs the car slowly into the park. The man in the long black coat isn’t the only person in the area who’s been partying.

About fourteen hours later, the man in the long black coat walks gingerly down Ninth Street as the sidewalk slopes south from Seventh Avenue. Cautiously, he uses his good knee to make the pivot as he reaches Barbes, pushes the door open and then slowly moves through the crowd, past the front bar.

The tall blonde bartendress in the back room greets him with a smile. She brings him a seltzer. They assess each others’ consumption the previous evening. Him: three bottles of wine, then beer when the wine ran out. Her: a whole bottle of vodka. They gaze at each other in muted appreciation, a mutual sense of pride in being back on their feet, more or less, so soon. “I’m not drinking tonight, either,” she confides.

It’s a Friday night, and for a New Year’s Day, the crowd is lively and all the seats are filled. In the front of the room, Big Lazy – guitarist Steve Ulrich, bassist Andrew Hall and drummer Yuval Lion – make their final adjustments. The man in the long black coat slumps back against the room’s rear window ledge. A striking, statuesque brunette turns toward the back of the room; they see each other and embrace, his head against the waves of hair on her lustrous porcelain skin. She’s taller than he is. “What’d you do to yourself?”she asks,

“Running from the cops,” he says dryly, shifting his weight to the healthy knee. “Don’t worry, I didn’t hurt anybody.”

The brunette rolls her eyes. A man walks into the room and extends a glass of Maker’s Mark, neat. The man in the long black coat eyes it warily, then takes the glass, a tentative sip and then a slug. He leans back against the ledge, more relaxed now. This could be another long night.

Big Lazy begin their set building lingering, creepy chromatics around a spare blues riff. The man in the long black coat whispers something in the brunette’s ear. She cups her hand to his and whispers back, her dark eyes sparkling. She’s one of the world’s great blues players, and it resonates with her, as it does with the man in the long black coat – who is not, although he has some experience in that department.

The band makes echoey, uneasy, slowly swaying surf rock out of a bossa tune.They strut with an especially tongue-in-cheek energy through a big-sky theme that may or may not relate to the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. Lion is hitting harder than usual in this room; Hall, for his part, is dancing and slinking, then plays deep-space bowed lines against Ulrich’s switchblade staccato on an Astor Piazzolla song. Later they do a murky take on the early Beatles, with a nod to the Ventures.

Ulrich has his reverb turned way up, as usual. As a rule, he doesn’t play a lot of notes, and this set is especially terse. He tells some funny stories: the night’s most breathless sprint turns out to be an imaginary soundtrack for a 1920s surrealist short film; the creepiest number, Skinless Boneless, was inspired by the message board outside a 1990s Bronx Burger King.

One of the last numbers they play is a surprisingly lighthearted 60s go-go theme: Ulrich tells the crowd that it’s a new one titled Sizzle and Pops, named after an imaginary husband-and-wife bar and grill. It’s a funny way to end a night of crime jazz themes after a run from the law.

Big Lazy return to Barbes at 10 PM on Friday, February 5. You never know who will be there. If you see a NYPD 4X4, don’t flinch and just keep walking.

Jack Grace Puts on a Clinic in Latin-Inflected Surrealist Americana Tunesmithing and Entertainment at Barbes

Jack Grace was a good lead guitarist ten years ago. He’s a brilliant one now. Twenty years of constant touring will do that to you. Grace is best known for his surreal, LMFAO sense of humor and his funny songs that veer from exuberant vintage C&W, to Waits noir blues, to simmering southwestern gothic anthems. Leading a trio last night at Barbes, Grace put on a clinic in sizzling guitar and Americana songcraft. This was his latin set, propelled by drummer Russ Meissner’s expertly accented shuffle grooves. A flick of the cymbals, a rattle of the traps, a sudden gunshot rimshot, he made them all count. And maybe just coincidentally, it was a bittersweetly nostalgic show, at least as far as evoking the days ten years ago when Grace was booking the old Rodeo Bar, and could be found playing Lakeside Lounge on random Saturday nights when he wasn’t on the road.

They opened with Put on Your Shoes, Moonshine, a pensive, lyrically torrential desert rock anthem. Next was a boisterous trucker song peppered with filthy CB slang, the song’s chatty narrator wasting no time in explaining that the parking lot he’s spending the night is is so lame that the only hooker working it is a guy. “People that I can’t relate to don’t understand my ways.” Grace groused in Don’t Wanna Work Today, an uneasy, bluesy, minor-key Tex-Mex number.

“This next song is about snorting cocaine in the bathroom. There are plenty of places where you can do cocaine…but here in New York, the bathroom is where we do it,” Grace deadpanned in his cat-ate-the-canary, Johnny Cash-influenced baritone and then launched into Cry, a brooding minor-key cha-cha that swung from sly drug-fueled optimism to the despondency that sets in like a giant cat over the city the afternoon after a night of too many lines and too much tekillya. Speaking of which, he played his own version of Tequila – a dancing border-rock tune, not the surf rock instrumental – where the “lie, lie, lie” of the chorus spoke for itself.

The trio moved methodically from the muted country anomie of South Dakota to the sparse minor-key Waits blues strut Sugarbear. Throughout the set, Grace segued into deadpan country verses of familiar Led Zep songs, a trope he’s been working for years, more now since his side project Van Hayride – known for their even funnier covers of pre-Sammy Hagar Van Halen and other loud, cheesy stuff from the 80s – is temporariliy on the shelf. One of the night’s funniest moments was when Grace his his flange pedal, and without missing a beat, segued into a note-for-note cover of Pink Floyd’s Breathe, complete with a searing, doublespeed, savagely tremolo-picked guitar solo that would have made David Gilmour jealous.

The title track to Grace’s forthcoming album Everything I Say Is a Lie turned out to be a slowly swaying mashup of doo-wop, early 70s Willie Nelson and late 60s Jimmy Web balladry. Been So Long Since I Bothered to Think, an unselfconsciously haunting ba-bump bolero reminded just how dark and intense Grace can get when he’s in the mood. “In middle school I learned to criticize, the world’s broken down and compromised, “ he lamented – and then took a hit of beer and gargled a couple of choruses. Nobody can ever say this guy’s not entertaining.

The band went back to pensive, rustically bluesy ambience with Rotary Phone, a brooding, metaphorically loaded tale about getting old and out of touch, then some comic relief with a wry medley of Zep, Nirvana and Doors riffs. The set continued with a seriously bizarre C&W version of a Talking Heads song, then the absurdist mariachi funk of It Was a Really Bad Year – “A song that gets a lot of airplay this time of the year,” Grace mused – then a moody, pretty straight-up cover of Hank Williams’ I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive. They closed with Big Bear, an electrified bluegrass tune from the film Super Troopers. Grace is at Coyote Ugly Saloon on First Ave. just south of 10th St. – who have bands now – on December 29 at around 9, then he’s playing a New Year’s Eve show in Saratoga Springs and returns to Coyote Ugly on January 5.

Bliss Blood and Al Street Bring Their Eclectically Lynchian Torch Songs to Freddy’s

Bliss Blood isn’t your typical Lynchian chanteuse. She’s as subtle as she is eclectic. With her coolly enigmatic, nuanced alto delivery, she brings to mind low-key cult favorites from the 50s like June Christy and Chris Connor. Retro as she is, she’s also completely in the here and now, putting her own simmering, low-flame spin on sinister, seductive songwriting, but also on purist pop that draws on artists as diverse as Ray Davies and Lee Hazlewood. Her latest album, Unspun, with longitime guitarist and collaborator Al Street, made the top albums of 2015 paage here. The two are playing an intimate Brooklyn show on December 29 at around 7:30 PM at Freddy’s. Another tunesmith who draws on more rock-oriented, similarly purist if somewhat more recent influences, the  sardonically lyrical Scott Phillips a.k.a. the Monologue Bombs opens the night at around 6. It’s a rare opportunity to see Bliss Blood’s duo project outside of her usual swanky haunts like Hamptons hotspots and the Soho Grand Hotel.

This blog most reently caught the duo in Wiilliamsburg at the well-loved and badly missed Brooklyn Rod & Gun Club (yeah, it’s been awhile). Blood played her trusty ukulele while Street aired out his bottomless bag of jazz, flamenco and blues licks., sometimes adding fiiery surf tremolpicking, occasionally anchoring the songs with biting, trebly basslines. Blood has lent her voice to more diverse projects than most singers with her command of distant menace – noise-punks the Pain Teens, acoustic blues band Delta Dreambox and one of New York’s original oldtimey swing bands, the Moonlighters being just a few – but this show was pure, Lynchian noir. The scampering swing number they opened with turned out to be a red herring, followed by a proto-Vegas noir tune, evoking an era when the casinos were still desert sand. The slowly swaying tune after that mashed up oldschool 60s soul and bittersweet 30s swing…then they hit the afterburners and took it doublespeed, Street firing off volleys of circling Sam Langhorne-style 60s blues riffage.

Blood’s tunesmithing shifts keys constantly, and counterintuitively: you never know what’s coming next, but it’s a good bet that the song’s going to be a real haunter. As jaunty and fun as Blood can be, there aren’t many songwriters who can channel longing and despondency as vividly yet distantly as she can. One prime example at this show was a gorgrously pouncing ballad that wound up with a rain-drenched Street janglerock solo. Their cover of Secret Love put the original Doris Day version to shame while alluding to the C&W guitar of the Loretta Lynn hit. After that, they did a waltz lit up by Street’s hornets-nest chord-chopping. He did the same thing on the sultry, misterioso Entropy, one of the new album’s standout cuts.

Another of the album’s best numbers, No One Gets It All came off as part restrained, lurid 60s Henry Mancini noir pop, part opaque janglerock, with an oldtime swing shuffle groove. From there the duo ran through blues, and flamenco tinges, alluded to Lady Day’s I Cover the Waterfront, veered toward more straight-up jazz, took a high-energy detour into Tex-Mex and then back to wounded, lowlit Twin Peaks territory with a chilling take of Palace of the Wind. It was a night of lots of styles and lots of stylish picking, a good indication of the depth of this duo’s troubled and alluring catalog.

Rachelle Garniez Releases 2015’s Best Album, a Harrowing, Richly Detailed Portrait of the Here and Now

Dichotomies run deep throughout Rachelle Garniez’s latest album, Who’s Counting, streaming at Spotify. Optimism and despondency, irresistible laughs and corrosive anger sit side by side. The music is spare, uncluttered and for the most part unhurried. Everything counts for something, even the subtlest touches. Funny/creepy hospital room sonics channeled via the highest stops on her accordion; faux sleigh bells that could be cruelly faux-Christmasy, or maybe just guardedly festive. Even the jauntiest tracks have a dark undercurrent, while the darkest ones are understated, even gentle. While the music draws on many retro styles – saloon blues, Louis Armstrong torch song, Brecht/Weill cabaret, 19th century Celtic New York balladry – it’s irrefutably in the here and now, an artifact of a year of refugee death marches, tribal bride murders and the devastation of Garniez’s beloved Manhattan as the stampede to cash in on what’s left of the real estate bubble leaves entire neighborhoods trampled and crippled. Garniez relates all those narratives in many voices: an innocent, a bawdy belter or a shellshocked witness, sometimes a parade of personalities in the same song. As a bittersweetly accurate portrait of the here and now, it is unrivalled in 2015 and for that reason is the best album of the year, maybe the best album in a career that includes more than one brilliant one.

Garniez’s work over the past fifteen years or so is not an easy read. Very often, the window of interpretation hangs open, as far as the degree of subtext or sarcasm lurking in the shadows underneath. On the surface, Medicine Man – a remake of a sultry hokum blues strut originally released on her 2003 Luckyday album – builds a steamy atmosphere fueled by the gusty brass of Hazmat Modine, of which Garniez is also a member. A closer listen reveals a thinly veiled plea for some relief from a lingering angst. Little Fish – a Cajun-flavored duet featuring the Hazmats’ banjo player Erik Della Penna, originally released on Garniez’s eclectic 2000 album Crazy Blood – is addressed to a missing person who might be missing for keeps. And the album’s most irrepressibly dancing number, Flat Black – a simple bass-and-vocal duet that looks back fifty years to Sarah Vaughan’s work with Joe Comfort – is a blackly droll look forward to the singer’s funeral, where everybody’s going to “sit shiva by the river, have a little chopped liver.”

That’s the bright side of the album. The dark side is harrowing, even devastating. Garniez plays spare gospel-tinged piano against an ambered horn chart on the title track, in the moment in every conceivable sense of that phrase. She maintains that mood, taking it up a notch for awhile, on the vivid, photorealistic New York Minute, on one hand a fond reminiscence of a Manhattan childhood in the days before helicopter parenting, on another a very uneasy portrait of a budding eight-year-old existentialist. And Manhattan Island – one of several miniatures interspersed enigmatically between songs – grounds the current speculative crisis in centuries of history.

The album’s highest points are also its most brooding. The Elizabethan Britfolk-flavored Vanity’s Curse opens as a suspensefully crepuscular portrait of a dotty old lady’s well-appointed lair but quickly moves to illuminate the sinister source of all that luxe: it’s impossible to imagine a more relevant song released this year. The haunting, starkly quiet A Long Way to Jerusalem follows an ages-old Talmudic tale, recast as a shattering chronicle of women abused and tortured over the centuries. And It’s a Christmas Song (watch the cool video) offers a contrarian view that will resonate with anyone whose tolerance for corporate holiday cheer has maxed out. As the song swings and bounces along, Garniez has no problem with revelry. “If you gotta shop, please support the mom & pop,” but:

Let’s celebrate the birth
Of redefining worth
Start a full-scale reconstruction
Of a flawed global economy
Take down corporate tyranny
Promote local autonomy

It figures that Garniez would wait til the album’s last song to finally drop her guard and let her message resonate, pure and simple. That’s a Christmas present worth sticking around for. Garniez plays Barbes on January 7 at 8 PM, then she’s back there on January 17 at 7:30 PM.

Murder and Mayhem in Brooklyn, Again

One of Brooklyn’s most unique music scenes is growing in the wilds of Fort Greene, where noir chamber pop connoisseurs Charming Disaster – Ellia Bisker of the darkly catchy Sweet Soubrette and Jeff Morris of the lushly orchestrated, latin-tinged, phantasmagorical Kotorino – host a monthly salon where artists from many different genres get together to explore the darkest side of songwriting. It’s only fitting that the latest installment of Murder Ballad Mondays would take place on the darkest day of the year, this December 21 at 8 PM at Branded Saloon. Featured artists include enigmatic art-rock cellist/chanteuse Serena Jost, haunting High Plains gothic songstress Karen Dahlstrom (of folk noir stars Bobtown), the luridly theatrical, Brechtian Orphan Jane, Americana singer-songwriters Karen Poliski and Terry Radigan and others.

One explanation for the monthly extravaganza’s popularity could be that the artists here don’t limit themselves to old Appalachian folk songs or Child ballads. They’re pushing the limits of how far murder ballads can go: who knows, maybe this could become more than a demimonde. As the turnout here proves, there’s no shortage of material, not to mention people who like creepy music. This past month’s lineup, in particular, featured some of New York’s elite songsmiths, who turned in some pretty amazing performances.

Jessi Robertson, with her impassioned, otherworldly, rustic blues voice, got the night started on a strong note with a morosely stately waltz. “Should have burned it to the ground, dance in the dark…it’s a sad old story,” she intoned, low and gloomy. Then she referenced Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles over a mesh of watery, open guitar chords.

Sharply literate Americana parlor pop chanteuse Robin Aigner followed with an almost gleeful take of Delia’s Gone – springboarding off the Johnny Cash version – and then reinvented Neil Young’s Down By the River as a brooding minor-key waltz. In between, she sang a brand-new song, a swinging, catchy oldtimey strut: “I can’t shut you up, I can’t shut you out but I can shoot you and put you in the ground,” she grinned, explaining that the victim was a composite of ex-boyfriends rather than a specific individual. Yikes!

Jessie Kilguss made her US debut on harmonium (she played it on her most recent European tour) on a riveting, soaringly enveloping take of the Nick Cave version of the old standard Henry Lee. as well as making her way through a rapt, stark take of an original, Hell Creek, backed by guitarist John Kengla’s icy, late Beatlesque chorus-pedal guitar. Guitarist Arthur Schupach led his Donald & Lydia duo project through another take of Henry Lee, this one based on the Jolie Holland version. Speaking of which, that’s who Ellis Dodi frontwoman Erica Diloreto brought to mind, throughout a mix of material including a hilarious acoustic punk tune where she dropped a whole slew of f-bombs on a clueless ex.

Juliet Strong played kinetic, rippling gospel and ragtime-fueled piano on a couple of originals, while Charming Disaster tantalized the crowd with a single tongue-in-cheek number about a couple of ghosts in love, pulsing with intricate, sophisticated vocal call-and-response between Bisker and Morris. And a familiar bass face from the Lower East Side scene took a haphazard turn on piano, drawing some chuckles with a bitter 6/8 ballad about killing the tech-obsessed, micromanaging boss from hell. A ghoulabilly number about doing in the sleazy front guy from a hydrofracking operation didn’t go over as well. And a cover of a brand-new, as-yet-untitled Karla Rose & the Thorns serial killer narrative – done as a dirgey bolero with horror-film chromatics – capsulized the danger of a guy with Lou Reed vocal range plundering the repertoire of an immensely more powerful singer. Which speaks to Murder Ballad Mondays’ value as lab for experimentation as much as entertainment.

A Walk in the Dark with Mary Halvorson

What’s the likelihood of getting to see guitarist Mary Halvorson trading riffs with pedal steel icon Susan Alcorn, building an alchemical stew from there? Along with a familiar and similarly-minded crew including erudite trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson; polymath trombonist Jacob Garchik; the even more devious Jon Irabagon on alto sax; tenor saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock and her irrepressible deadpan wit; groovemeister bassist John Hebert, and potentially self-combustible drummer Ches Smith? It’s happening tonight and tomorrow night, December 15-16 at 7:30 and 9:30 PM when Halvorson leads this killer octet at the Jazz Gallery. Cover is $22.

Who’s the best guitarist in jazz? Pretty much everybody would probably say Bill Frisell. But how about Halvorson? Within the past year or so, she’s released a drolly noisy, politically spot-on art-rock record with People as well as a methodically-paced, texturally snarling trio album by her Thumbscrew trio with bassist Michael Formanek and drummer Tomas Fujiwara, al the while appearing on a slew of other artists’ records. To get an idea of what she’s likely to do with a larger crew alongside her, your best reference point is probably her moodily orchestrated 2013 septet masterpiece, Illusionary Sea (Spotify link).Halvorson’s latest album, Meltframe – streaming at Firehouse Records – is a solo release, a playlist of radically reinvented standards and covers by colleagues who inspire her, tracing something of a career arc for an artist who rather dauntingly hasn’t reached her peak yet.

What’s most striking here is how sad, desolate and often utterly Lynchian these songs are. Halvorson’s own material is hardly lighthearted, but her sardonic sense of humor so often shines through and shifts the dynamics completely. She doesn’t do that here: it’s a raptly bleak and occasionally harrowing late-night stroll, almost a challenge as if to say, you think you really know me? This is me with my glasses off. The material spans influences readily identifiable in Halvorson’s own compositions, including the AACM pantheon, similarly off-the-hinges guitarists past and present, the blurry borders of rock and jazz songcraft…and Ellington.

The album opens with a carefree but blazing fuzztone bolero-metal take of fellow six-stringer Oliver Nelson’s Cascades. Avant jazz singer Annette Peacock’s original recording of Blood is a lo-fi, careless mess of a vignette: Halvorson’s take is twice as long, segueing out and then back into the previous cut in a brooding flamenco vein, distortion off and the tremolo up to maintain the menace.

She shifts gears, sticking pretty close to the wistful pastoral shades of guitarist Noel Akchote’s Cheshire Hotel, but with a lingering, Lynchian unease that rises toward fullscale horror as it goes along. Ornette Coleman’s Sadness blends hints of the gloomy bridge midway through Iron Maiden’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner into its moody modalities, an apt setup for her lingering deep-space/deep-midnight interpretation of Duke Ellington’s Solitude.

Ida Lupino, a Carla Bley tune originally recorded by her husband Paul Bley, returns to a nebulous Spanish tinge amid the hazy, strummy variations on Sonic Youth-style open chords, Halvorson playing clean with just the hint of reverb. She keeps that setting as she spins, spirals and then lets her chords hang around McCoy Tyner’s Aisha, one of the more deviant interpretations here. Then she cuts loose with a brief blast of distortion and saunters off toward the deep end of the pitch-shifting pool.

Platform, a Chris Lightcap composition, gives Halvorson a stepping-off point for some gritty crunch and wryly Maidenesque grand guignol. When, by Fujiwara plays off a loop of enigmatically chromatic chords; it sounds like something a drummer might write on an unfamiliar instrument. The album closes with a pensively pitch-shifted, Dave Fiuczynski-esque cover of Roscoe Mitchell’s Leola. Guitar jazz doesn’t get any more individualistic or intense than this in 2015.

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