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No New Abnormal

Tag: olga bell

Playful, Quirky Indie Classical Sounds at Lincoln Center

“We are home to free year-round programming that is as eclectic as you are this evening.” Lincoln Center’s Meera Dugal grinned as she introduced Sugar Vendil’s Nouveau Classical Project a couple hours ago in the Broadway atrium space. “A project that we’ve been dreaming about having for a long time,” Dugal confided: “One thing that’s very unique about this ensemble is that these pieces were all commissioned by the band.” On a bill assembled jointly by Lincoln Center with the Asian-American Arts Alliance, this performance was a rare opportunity to hear a first-class group of instrumentalists tackle some quirky, playful material which is pretty much exclusive to the ensemble right now, as Dugal pointed out.

Clarinetist Mara Mayer kicked off Olga Bell’s Zero Initiative against samples of banal crowd conversation, flutist Laura Cocks dancing over the staccato strings of violinist Maya Bennardo and cellist Thea Mesirow. Pianist Vendil joined the dance and then backed away as the music decayed to calm washes, then leapt back in. Onstage, the piece seemed both more dynamic and more hypnotic than the version on their new album Currents – but that’s a vey subjective observation. A flitting riff that the band quickly disassembled seemed lifted from Tschaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, no surprise considering that Bell originally hails from Russia.

The second piece on the bill was Isaac Shankler’s Artifacts, whose maddeningly tricky opening rhythms and expectant upward trajectories also seemed more frenetic and bustling than the bubbly recorded version. Light electronic touches filtered through the mix behind emphatic, catchy, cell-like phrases, which fell away for enigmatically crescendoing ambience punctuated by delicate flickers from the winds. The tongue-in-cheek disco pageantry midway through was mostly confined to the laptop.

David Bird’s Cy Twombly homage, simply titled Cy, had a similarly ambient intro, the ensemble’s momentary microtonal motives creating a pervasive restlessness that eventually verged on terror. Clarinetist Eric Umble led them safely underneath, at least until Mesirow dug in hard on her glissandos and scrapes.The music came across as less horizontal than a brisk limo ride over a series of speed bumps.

They closed with Gabrielle Herbst’s Where Is My Voice – which as it turned out was on the laptop as well, the group’s calm resonance anchoring flitting samples of vocalese and labored breathing. Then they picked up with a hammering, Julia Wolfe-like insistence before Cocks’ agitated spirals and Vendil’s catchy lefthand riffage provided a cloudburst. Moody Satie-esque themes and syncopated circular hooks, led by Mayer’s luscious bass clarinet, punctuated the stillness of the rest of the work. Everybody in the group rocked custom-made stagewear by Jenny Lai: it’s classy, and it’s not all black.

The next concert in the mostly-weekly series at the Lincoln Center atrium space on Broadway just north of 62nd St. is Dec 13 at 7:30 PM with wildly eclectic virtuoso violist and film composer Ljova, a.k.a. Lev Zhurbin leading a series of colorful ensembles. Get there early if you want a seat.

Olga Bell’s Irreverently Funny, Relevant Lincoln Center Debut Trumps Adversity

Olga Bell is hilarious. In her American Songbook debut at Lincoln Center’s Kaplan Penthouse last night, the Russian-born art-rock/avant garde keyboardist/singer validated a brave piece of booking, in the process triumphing over all sorts of adversity. This was a tough gig from the git-go. Cheefing on what seemed like a bottomless thermos til it was gone, then finally switching to water, she battled a cold along with some unfamiliar gear that malfunctioned to the point of threatening to completely derail her show. But she persevered, cheerfully breaking the fourth wall when she wasn’t mercilessly pillorying the yuppie careerism, incessant status-grubbing and money obsessions of gentrifier-era Brooklyn, which she now calls home.

And she did it with more than just her lyrical jabs, which turned out to be a lot subtler than her musical barbs. Those drew the heartiest laughs from a sold-out audience of well-heeled twentysomethings whose mere presence in Manhattan on a Friday night was something of a surprise: turns out that not everyone in zip code 11221 is petrified of being geotagged outside it.

When she hit her pitch pedal and ran her vocals through a toddler-voice patch to make fun of a guy who’s too big for his britches, and then a little later turned the kiss-off anthem Power User into phony hip-hop, the crowd roared. She had similar fun with her electronics and all the loops she’d stashed away in her sequencer, particularly a Bernie Worrell-style low bass synth setting that she worked for every droll riff she could think of.

Her between-song patter also had edge and bite. Acknowledging that for her, this gig spelled revenge for having been rejected by the Juilliard folks a few floors below, she played elegantly nuanced, neoromantically-tinged piano when she wasn’t fiddling with her mixer, or loading a stubborn loop device, or feeding layers of melody into an arpeggiator. Such things exist: clearly, there’s a market among players who prefer chords instead. She namechecked “aspirational hipsters,” including the guy at the corner bar who’s on the take more than he’s on the make.

“Wherefore art thou, Doppio?” she posed to another would-be romantic doofus. Even the simpler, techier, disco-oriented numbers were laced with taunts and sarcasm, particularly Stomach It and Your Life Is a Lie, among other tracks from her 2016 album Tempo. Toward the end of the show, she was joined by cellist Andrea Lee for a moody Russian border-rock ballad from the 2014 album Krai, and then soul singer Sarah Lucas, who belted out one of the more pop-oriented electronic numbers. Bell encored with a vaudevillian piano tune about finding romance on the L train, which she’d written in 2006 for the Rockwood Music Hall open mic. Who knew there was once such a thing – and who knew that somebody who played there would someday headline at Lincoln Center.

This year’s American Songbook series continues to venture much further afield than the theatre music and pop hits from the 1930s and 40s that it was created for almost twenty years ago. There are two Kaplan Penthouse shows next week that deserve special mention: on Tuesday, March 28 at 8 PM, the Cactus Blossoms, who have an eerie resemblance to the Everly Brothers, bring their rapturous harmonies and disconsolate Americana ballads. And the following night, March 29, powerhouse Ghanian-born oldschool soul belter Ruby Amanfu leads her band.

Grey McMurray Reinvents a Classic Horror Movie Theme and Its Aftermath

Before the world premiere of his new arrangement of Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells last night, guitarist Grey McMurray encouraged WNYC’s John Schaefer to take a few slugs from the hip flask that he’d just flashed to the audience. The joke was that the original album was ostensibly fueled by a lot of alcohol (and obviously a lot of other stuff – it was 1973, after all). What was it like to experience McMurray’s new version without the help of any of that? It was definitely an improvement on the original, worthy of Brian Eno in places. The question is whether or not the original merited as much. Running late to get to the early afterwork show, there wasn’t time to hit the wine store beforehand, something that might have been a good idea.

Seriously: beyond the prog-rock/mathrock cult, who’s ever listened to side two of the album, let alone the sequence of tracks after the iconic tune in 15/4 time that was cut-and-pasted into the theme to the Exorcist? That hit single has been a staple of Halloween playlists for four decades. How Halloweenish did it sound, as played by McMurray and the Wordless Music Orchestra? Not very. The main theme wasn’t even played on tubular bells: drummer Qasim Naqvi introduced it by plinking it out on glockenspiel. From a listener’s point of view, it was as hard  to defamiliarize, and experience that deliciously eerie theme with fresh ears, as it must have been for McMurray and the group to recontextualize it. He’d explained beforehand that he’d discouraged them from listening to the original for inspiration: smart advice.

What is the rest of the album like? The original, mostly overdubbed by Oldfield himself on a large studio’s supply of instruments, is showoffy, endlessly vamping and not particularly substantial. It’s short of second-rate Pink Floyd. For that matter, it’s not second-rate Jethro Tull, another obvious influence, either. Yet McMurray found beauty and elegance in it, building a joyously Enoesque, clear-sky gleam that lingered until the piece took a detour into secondhand Americana. Violinist Caleb Burhans, acoustic guitarist Aaron Roche, keyboardist/singer Olga Bell, pianist Justin Carroll and cellist Clarice Jensen reveled in those expansive textures.

Sound engineer Richie Clarke was given a shout-out in the program notes and earned that many times over: the World Financial Center atrium, where highs spin off the walls like electrons from what’s left of the Fukushima plant, is hardly conducive to rock bands, even an elegant art-rock band like this one. But he made it work, and McMurray gets credit for much of that because he also felt the room and kept his amp down in the mix so that the strings in particular could be heard. The lone shiver-inducing moment belonged to Jensen, whose sinewy, raspy reprise of the horror movie theme came completely by surprise about a third of the way through the suite. Bassist Chris Morrissey, like McMurray, looked like he was about to jump out of his shoes at times, resisting the urge to stand up and blast out his loopily propulsive groove. And Schaefer himself supplied the deadpan spoken-word introduction of the instruments, unable to resist a grin as he did so: by then, maybe he’d gotten into the sauce.

What’s it like to listen back to after a few drinks? It sounds better. You can decide for yourself when the concert airs on Q2 and then on Schaefer’s New Sounds program on November 20: you might want to make it a party night. Memo to the band: release this album on vinyl and you stand a good chance of topping the Billboard charts. No joke. If Leonard Cohen could do it, so can you. There’s an awful lot of old people, and young people too, who will buy it.

Olga Bell Brings Her Strange, Beguiling Russian Art-Rock to le Poisson Rouge

Krai is Russian for “border.” In Russia, there are seven krais, sort of the equivalent of counties in one of the US states. Those regions and their traditional music inspire the new album, simply titled Krai, by Moscow-born, Alaska-raised art-rocker Olga Bell. All but one of her songs here are completely through-composed, in other words, verses and choruses don’t repeat. The lyrics – in Russian – are a rapidfire mashup of ancient plainchant, folk tales and original, sometimes politically charged lyrics co-written by Bell and her mom, a former Soviet broadcaster. The music is rhythmically tricky art-rock, its indie classical flourishes interpolated amidst long, pensively vamping interludes driven by a kinetic rock rhythm section, with lingering, austere electric guitar, vibraphone, strings, woodwinds and Bell’s own intricately overdubbed six-part vocal harmonies. Bell’s often labyrinthine vocal arrangements employ a lot of close harmonies to enhance the otherworldliness, although she doesn’t use the microtones common to some Balkan and Russian music. Bell and her ensemble play the album release show for this one at 8 PM on April 28 at le Poisson Rouge; advance tix are $15 and highly recommended.

The opening track’s ominous art-rock intro quickly morphs into a Slavic chorale, then it moves back to offcenter cinematics, the vibraphone’s incisiveness contrasting with the opaqueness around it. Bell winds it up with a big crescendo of vocals and then a whoop. Where the first track swoops upward as it gets going, the second swoops downward, with the vocals, a jaw harp, steady bass and a practically mocking high cello line over a quavery, sustained drone that sounds like ebow guitar. Track three, Perm Krai (each title has a corresponding region) has a trickily rhythmic, shuffling trip-hop groove, something akin to Sigur Ros taking a stab at mathrock. The fourth cut, Stavropol Krai has Bell doing a call-and-response with her own multitracks, then the band lights up a spare, sparse theme with jaunty accents from flute and guitar. It ends with what appears to be a sarcastic military march.

Krasnoyarsk Krai, with its icy vibraphone flourishes, dense layers of vocals and organ, is the album’s creepiest track. Zabaikalsky Krai begins as a simililarly eerie bell melody and then works its way through an ominous synth interlude and then hints at a darkly leaping mathrock theme – it’s the album’s most ethereal song. With its weirdly processed keys and vocals, Khabarovsk Krai is the quirkiest, a Slavic dance dressed up as Radiohead.

The final track, Kamchatka Krai sounds like a Russian version of the Creatures, towering walls of vocals punctuated by big bass chords, pounding drums, screechy synth and the occasional swipe from the guitar or electric piano. Who is the audience for this? Maybe fans of Dirty Projectors, with whom Bell has worked extensively. Otherwise, fans of the stranger side of art-rock (and Bjork, and postrock, and mathrock, and accessible indie classical ensembles like Ymusic) will find a lot to sink their ears into here. It’s a long, strange trip.