New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Tag: orchestrated rock

Darkly Eclectic Composer Jay Vilnai Releases His Most Haunting Album

Guitarist Jay Vilnai is one of Brooklyn’s most individualistic, consistently interesting composers. Over the years, he’s led a fiery Romany-rock band, Jay Vilnai’s Vampire Suit and made acerbic chamber music out of Shakespearean poetry. He’s also the lead guitarist in another wild, popular Slavic string band, Romashka. His latest album, Thorns All Over – a collection of new murder ballads with text by poet Rachel Abramowitz, streaming at Bandcamp – is one of his best projects so far. In fact, it could be the most lurid, Lynchian indie classical album ever made. Vilnai is playing the album release show at Arete Gallery in Greenpoint on June 6 at 7 PM, leading a trio with violinist Skye Steele and singer Augusta Caso. Cover is $15.

The allbum’s Pinter-esque plotline follows a series of jump cuts. Likewise, the rhythms shift almost incessantly, enhancing a mood of perpetual unease. Vilnai layers eerily looping piano, desolately glimering tremolo guitar and evil, twinkling vibraphone up to a savage crescendo in the album’s opening track, The Lake: it’s all the more haunting for how quietly and offhandedly the narrator relates what happens along the shore that night.

Vilnai builds a skronky maze of counterpoint in tandem with Reuben Radding’s bass in A Woman or a Gun, a surreal mashup of what could be Ted Hearne indie opera, John Zorn noir soundtrack tableau and Angelo Badalamenti taking a stab at beatnik jazz.

“I took her to the dark forest to see if she would light the way,”Vilnai intones over gloomy pools of piano, as the band make their way into The Forest. A chamber ensemble of Skye Steele on violin, Oscar Noriega on clarinet, Ben Holmes on trumpet, Katie Scheele on English horn and David Wechsler on alto flute build a gently fluttering tableau, a sarcastic contrast with the story’s ugly foreshadowing.

A ghostly choir – Quince Marcum, Laura Brenneman and Jean Rohe – join in an echoing vortex behind Vilnai’s stately angst in Heartbreak. He layers grim low-register guitar, coldly starlit piano and enveloping atmospherics in the title track, up to a squirrelly mathrock crescendo amd slowly back down: this love triangle turns out to be a lot stranger than expected.

The album’s macabre final diptych is The Night We Met: Noriega’s moody clarinet rises over creepy, lingering belltones, Vilnai’s minimalist guitar lurking in the background. It concludes as a glacially waltzing dirge. Count this as one of this year’s most haunting and strangest records: you’ll see it on the best albums of 2019 page here in December.

A Rare City Park Show and a Mighty, Harrowing New Suite From Stephanie Chou

For the last couple of years, Barnard College has staged an amazingly eclectic, entertaining annual concert under the trees in the crabapple grove in Riverside Park just north of 91st Street. This years’s festival is this Satruday night, May 18, starting at 5 PM with one of New York’s most socially relevant and ambitious jazz talents, alto saxophonist/singer Stephanie Chou. This time out she’ll be leading a trio with pianist Jason Yeager and drummer Ronen Itzik Other acts on the bill include the Bacchantae, Barnard College’s all-female a cappella group, ferociously dynamic, tuneful, female-fronted power trio Castle Black, and the Educadorian-flavored Luz Pinos Band

Chou’s latest larger-scale project is titled Comfort Girl. It’s a harrowing, phanstasmagorical song cycle based on the terrors faced by the over two hundred thousand women who were forced into sexual slavery during the Japanese occupation of China during World War II. Some of those women were raped thousands of times. To add insult to injury, when those who survived were able to return home after the Japanese retreat, many of them were shunned. Chou debuted it at Joe’s Pub at the end of March. What was most striking about the show was not only Chou’s ability to shift between musical styles, but her prowess as a lyricist.

A flurry from Kenny Wollesen’s drums signaled the intro to the jaunty march Manchurian Girl, a late 30s Chinese pop hit. The lyrics are innocuous: a young woman waiting for her boo to return home so she can tie the knot. Chou sang it with more than a hint of foreshadowing, the music rising to a shivery tightness, Andy Lin’s vibrato-tinged violin over his sister Kelly Lin’s emphatic piano.

Narrator Peregrine Heard continued the story; girl meets boy and everything seems rosy in the countryside, echoed by a sax-violin duet that began coyly and then took on a swirling, triumphantly pulsing tone which turned wary and enigmatic as the two diverged harmonically.

The violinist switched to the even more shivery, plaintive-toned erhu fiddle for a Chinese parlor-pop ballad of sorts, Forever I Will Sing Your Song, crooner Orville Mendoza’s anticipatory drama contasting with Chou’s more demure delivery. The music grew suddenly chaotic as Japanese soldiers crushed the wedding ceremony, knocking out the groom and tearing his bride away.

Surrealistic piano glimmer over Wollesen’s noir percussion ambience supplied the backdrop for Chou’s wounded vocals in Shattered. Mendoze sang the pretty straight-up, determined piano rock ballad after that, the groom determined to get his beloved back. Meanwhile, she’s being paraded through one of the Japanese rape camps – the euphemistically named “Jade Star Hotel” – along with a group of captives. The piece’s simple military chorus was as chilling as any moment through the show, as was the haunting, phamtasmagorical waltz after that; “No name,, no hope: No life”

The young woman was thrown into a a cell, got a new Japanese name, and with a portentous crescendo and diabolical flickers from the violin, the music became a horror film score, It would have been historically accurate for the music to remain a morass of atonalities and cruel slashes punctuated by brief, mournful stillness, but Chou went deeper, with an aptly aching, Chinese-language ballad, her narravor terrified that her husband-to-be will reject her after all she’s had to suffer.

A coldly circling interlude captured the soldiers in line waiting for their turn with the “military provisions,” as the women were called. “We can do whatever we want to do,” Mendoza’s narrator sniffeed. A haunting, Pink Floyd-tinged interlude depicted her fiance giving up his search, miles away; Chou’s heroine remained defiant through a vindictive, venomous English-language anthem.

A spare, bucolic folk song – the kind the women would sing to remind each other of home – was next on the bil, followed by an anxious but undeterred ballad sung by Mendoza. Kelly Lin’s plaintive Debussy-esque crescendos lit up the number after that.

Flourishes from violin and sax underscored the young woman’s determination to beat the odds and survive, via a variation on the earlier, soul-tnnged revenge anthem. Unlike most of her fellow captives, this woman was able to escape, the piano driving a deliciously redemptive theme. And although her future husband realizes at the end that as she makes is back to her old village, “There’s still someone in there,”most of these women were not so lucky. Good news: Chou plans to release the suite as a studio recording.

Lurid, Creepy, Lush String Sounds on Natalia Steinbach’s New WaterLynx Album

Violinist Natalia Steinbach turns into a haunting, carnivalesque one-woman string orchestra on her new WaterLynx ep, streaming at Bandcamp. On one hand, it’s as grand guignol and gothic AF; on the other it’s not cliched either. That’s a fine line, and Steinbach manages to walk it…in black six-inch stilettos, one assumes. The former member of the alternatively lush and assaultive Naked Roots Conducive duo with cellist Valerie Kuehne is playing the album release show at Pine Box Rock Shop on May 16 at 9:30 PM.

Steinbach opens the album with a big, pulsing, angst-fueled ballad, Moonlight in Decay, switching back and forth between a creepy waltz and a more straightforwardly anthemic theme. There’s klezmer and Romany influences in the moody minor-keys; “Having trouble seeing when the lights are in full bloom,” she alludes in her dramatic, colorful soprano.

Steinbach sings Don’t Tempt Me – a setting of an embittered, distraught Evgeny Baratynsky poem – in the original Russian, over a plaintively swaying arrangement akin to what Tschaikovsky would have done with a folk lament. Then she switches gears with the insistent, lyrically torrential, sardonically desperate Breathe in Nothing, her one-woman string section flickering up some delicious chromatics.

The album’s final cut is There Is No Demon, a steady, dancing anthem with an intro like Vivaldi on acid, and gorgeously macabre vocal harmonies on the chorus: it’s the album’s most venomous track. Fans of the dark and dramatic, from the little girls who crushed on Lorde, to the vets who prefer Rasputina and Carol Lipnik, ought to give this often spine-tingling collection a spin.

Icy, Trippy, Shapeshifting Anthems and a Bed-Stuy Show From Arc Iris

Arc Iris sometimes play icily orchestrated, techy art-rock in the same vein as My Brightest Diamond, or a more keyboard-driven Wye Oak. In more concise moments, they put a trippier spin on glossy 80s new wave pop – not what you might expect from a band fronted by a woman who got her start in earnest-core folk-rockers the Low Anthem. Arc Iris are playing C’Mon Everybody on April 10 at 10 PM; cover is $10.

Their latest album, Icon of Ego is streaming at Bandcamp. This band likes long songs, weird time signatures and syncopation, and surreal lyrics that sometimes seem to be in the stream-of-consciousness vein, other times with a Romantic poetic tinge. There’s also a welcome guitar-fueled edge: this is the hardest-rocking release the band’s put out to date. 

Drummer Ray Belli’s insistent thump anchors singer Jocie Adams chirpy yet emphatic vocals as the anxiously blustery opening track, $GNMS (a remake of the first cut on the band’s debut album) gets underway, keyboardist Zach Tenorio-Miller layering his textures from lush to woozy and bassy.

Dylan & Me is a chilly, loopy, stainless-topped 90s trip-hop joint in an early Goldfrapp vein, the swirly oscillations of the keys contrasting with Adams’ coyly nuanced vocals. The charmingly catchy If You Can See begins with a big smack from Adams’ guitar and grows more serpentine, with echoey Rhodes piano cascades as the song goes along.

She multitracks stately, incisive stadium rock riffage into the towering atmosphere of Turn It Up: the lyrics seem to be more playfully amusing than on any of the other tracks. The fluttering strings of violinist Anna Williams and cellist Misha Veselov open the album’s title cut, then it takes on both more epic and hypnotic proportions.

Chattermachines has echoes of Radiohead and the Cocteau Twins filtering through a mix of sheen and low growl. It’s hard to figure out what these songs are about: this could be a snide commentary on social media obsession, but it could just as easily be something else entirely.

Beautiful Mind is a catchy, starrlly orchestrated, trickily dancing kiss-off anthem, it seems. Everybody’s Counting on Her is a rather wistful early 70s soul ballad spun through the prism of post-Radiohead art-rock. Something here is “shadowed by the great machine” – ain’t that the truth. The album’s final cut is Suzy, Adams’ torrents of lyrics bringing to mind REM’s It’s the End of the World. If you like to get lost in an epic way, Arc Iris are for you. 

There Will Be No Intermission: Amanda Palmer’s Big Comeback Album?

Let’s not get into the issue of Amanda Palmer, polarizing figure, naked on the cover of her new album There Will Be No Intermission, streaming at Bandcamp.  At her best, she’s a big-picture person, a withering lyricist, a distinctive and finely nuanced singer, a strong pianist and an equally strong, surprisingly eclectic tunesmith. She also plays ukulele. The core of the band here is Jherek Bischoff on bass, guitars and a bunch of other instruments,  John Congleton on drums and Max Henry on synths 

The album’s opening track is as riveting as Palmer is onstage: whatever you think of her, you cannot deny her prowess as a performer. After a wisp of an intro, her waltzing piano elegantly and eerily introduces the ten-minute epic The Ride. Working neoromantic variations on a carnivalesque riff we all know, she sings intimately, comfortingly…as the planet heats up, the waters rise and

Some are too scared to let go of their children,
And some are too scared now to have them
Suicide, homicide, genocide, man
That’s a fuck ton of sides you can choose from
I want you to think of me sitting and singing beside you
I wish we could meet all the people who got left behind
The ride is so loud it can make you think no one is listening
But isn’t it nice when we all can cry at the same time?

There’s a whole lot more to the song than that, but it’s Roger Waters-class visionary, and it’s the best song released this year so far.

Much as that proves to be an impossible act to follow, Palmer is clearly over the crippling case of writer’s block that plagued her for years. Drowning in the Sound, a surreal mashup of 80s Peter Gabriel, vintage Bowie glamrock and swishy mid-zeros theatreboy pop, has a similarly grim narrative:

Your body is a temple
And the temple is a prison
And the prison’s overcrowded
And the inmates know it’s flooding
And the body politic is getting sicker by the minute
And the media’s not fake
It’s just very inconvenient
Do you ever feel like this should be officially the end?
And that you should be the one to do the ending, but you can’t?
Do you ever feel like everyone is slowly letting go?
Do you ever feel that, that incredibly alone?

The Thing About Things is a uke song with a big dramatic chorus midway through. It’s a story about a lost ring, and how objects serve as surrogates for those we care about (Palmer’s take on that is far more poetic than that description). Machete – a 2016 single – is another good story, shifting between catchy new wave disco and atmospheric, Floydian art-rock. The title is a loaded metaphor.

In Voicemail for Jill, a tender piano ballad, Palmer offers to throw “the best abortion shower” for a Boston friend who numbers among the 33% of American women who’ve had one. And hang with A Mother’s Confession (another older tune) for all ten minutes plus, even though it’s mawkish and way too long, because the punchline is killer – and it’s the second time Palmer, mother of two, delivers it.

Look Mummy No Hands is the album’s most musically creepy track, even more phantasmagorical than the starker live version released on Palmer’s 2013 triple live album with her husband Neil Gaiman. The album ends with the cynical, ornate, Alan Parsons Project-style elegy Death Thing. There’s other material here, but considering how relevant and masterfully crafted the crux of the album is, let’s leave the haters on Facebook and Instagram where they belong. Even with all the filler, it’s good to see an important voice still speaking truth to power. Nice to see you still making records, Amanda Palmer.

Stephanie Chou Unveils Her Powerful, Socially Relevant New Suite

What makes Stephanie Chou’s music so much more interesting than most jazz these days? It’s a lot more tuneful, it’s often very playful, draws frequently on Chinese themes from over the centuries, and Chou isn’t afraid to take all this and rock out sometimes. And she’s a double threat, on the horn and the mic: she has a bright, edgy tone on the alto sax and sings in a soulful mezzo-soprano in both English and Chinese. Her most recent album, Asymptote – taking its name from one of the most philosophical constructs in mathematics – is streaming at youtube. Her next gig, at 7 PM on March 29 at Joe’s Pub, has special importance for Women’s History Month: it’s the debut of her harrowing new suite Comfort Girl, which explores the lives of the over two hundred thousand women exploited by sex traffickers in China during the World War II Japanese occupation. Cover is $15

The compositions on Asymptote aren’t as harrowing as that, but Chou doesn’t shy away from deep topics. She opens it with Kangding Love Song, a moody, latinized take on Chinese folk, John Escreet’s piano anchoring the music alongside bassist Zack Lober and drummer Kenny Wollesen, Andy Lin’s erhu fiddle floating sepulchrally overhead.

Wollesen gets to indulge in his signature Wollesonics with his homemade gongs and such in Eating Grapes, a popular Chinese tongue-twister that Chou recites without missing a syllable. Escreet’s elegant pointillisms and Lin’s aching erhu propel the Moon You’ll See My Heart, a bittersweetly starry English-language art-rock update on a 1970s Chinese pop hit. The title track is a less memorable take on acoustic coffeehouse folk-pop.

Does the recording of Penelope live up to how this blog described it in concert last year, “a haunting, crescendoing backbeat rock ballad fueled by Lin’s aching viola and a spiraling, smoky sax solo [that] would have been a huge radio hit for an artsy band like the Alan Parsons Project thirty years ago?” No smoky sax solo here, but otherwise, doublecheck!

General’s Command, an old Fujianese zither song gets reinvented as a stern, martial theme, then quickly goes in a lightheartedly strutting direction punctuated by a couple of blustery interludes. It sounds like this guy’s soldiers are having lots of fun behind his back.

A steady, brooding piano-and-sax intro, Chou overdubbing both instruments herself, opens Quiet Night Thought, Wollesen’s stately, minimalist percussion adding a tropical edge. As this setting of a Li Bai poem picks up steam, the lush blend of Chou’s vocals and sax is very affecting.

Making Tofu, a jazz waltz, is much more astringent and soaringly anthemic than a song about those flavorless little cubes would have you believe. The enigmatic, troubled tone poem In the Forest brings to mind Jen Shyu’s work with her Jade Tongue ensemble: it’s a salute to a legendary hermit from Chou’s upstate New York hometown. She winds up the album with the brief, uneasily twinkling Moon Recrudescence. It’s a shock this album has slipped so far under the radar up to now.

A Potently Relevant Pancho Villa-Themed Song Cycle at the Prototype Festival

Can you imagine Pancho Villa in Brooklyn in 2019? Considering how central the democratization of land was to his platform, it’s not hard to figure how the archetypal Mexican revolutionary would respond to the mass displacement of so many longtime residents to make room for “luxury condo” speculator property that no one will ever inhabit.

Last night at Bric Arts, keyboardist/composer Graham Reynolds led an energetic, supremely talented Austin band through what he termed a “multi-media theatrical concert,” exploring Villa’s life and myth via dark, ornate, Mexican-flavored rock interspersed with stormy, immersively cinematic interludes. Considering that so much of the action in the songs takes place on the US-Mexican border, there’s crushing irony in that the premiere took place in Marfa, Texas the day before the fateful 2016 election.

And there’s no small irony that the New York premiere – part of this year’s Prototype Festival – was staged in Brooklyn, less than a block from the property that corrupt former Borough President Marty Markowitz and his cronies conspired to turn over to to a out-of-state developer to sell at a ridiculous profit.

Reynolds’ music draws equally on ornate 70s rock like Pink Floyd and the Alan Parsons Project as much as mariachi, rancheras and boleros. Beyond the songs’ sheer catchiness and potent contemporary relevance, what’s best about this nonlinear suite of sorts is the vocals of tenor Paul Sanchez and mezzo-soprano Liz Cass. Most of the lyrics – a team effort by Mexico City-based collective Lagartijas Tiradas Al Sol, drawing deeply on history and many quotes from Villa himself –  are in Spanish But each singer articulates them with a resolute determination to drive them home. No gratuitous, over-the-top arioso diva BS here: even a non-native speaker can easily follow along. As a bonus, there are English supertitles for the Spanish and Spanish supertitles for the occasional English interlude. The translations, both ways, are excellent.

Towering angst, hope against hope and imminent doom interchange over an elegantly dynamic backdrop. Reynolds leads the band from behind the keyboard, shifting between neoromantic piano, gothic organ and smoky electronic battlefield swaths. Bassist Utah Hamrick (who also doubled on tuba) took the single most breathtaking solo of the night, channeling lurid Lynchian noir. Violinist Alexis Buffum got centerstage in the most Tex-Mex flavored numbers, cellist Henna Chou bolstering the lows in tandem with the eclectically textured drumwork of Grupo Fantasma’s Jeremy Bruch. Mexican heavy psych titan Adrian Quesada played guitar, finally getting to cut loose with some toothsome metal on his Telecaster after many uneasily jangly southwestern gothic moments.

Was Villa a man of the people, a careless womanizer, an avenger archetype getting even for hundreds of years of conquistador evil…or a smalltime bandito hell-bent on the bigtime? At the very end, Cass reveals that all of the above and more may be only a small part of a very complex character who’s no less controversial almost a hundred years later. As this version of the story goes, Villa’s almost stubborn inability to read people translated to a series of increasingly poor alliances that eventually cost him his life. 

The title of the suite – Pancho Villa From a Safe Distance – is sarcastic to the extreme. It’s reference to how the El Paso Hotel Del Norte advertised its comfortable rooftop picnic area as the best vantage point in town for watching the carnage going down across the river. The concluding performance is tonight at 7:30; if you are a fan of history or artsy, ornate 70s rock, you would be remiss to miss it.

An Intimate Lower East Side Gig by Haunting Art-Rock Songwriter Joanna Wallfisch

There are two kinds of road songs. The more common ones celebrate freedom, the other celebrate escape. The second track on singer/multi-instrumentalist Joanna Wallfisch’s most recent album Blood & Bone – streaming at Bandcamp – is the other kind. It’s a chillingly propulsive narrative inspired by her 2016 California tour, which she made by bike.

I change my background story
Every time somebody asks
I have worn so many masks…
Winding down the windows
Letting in in the breeze
Breathing in the ashes
Of burning redwood trees
Time moves parallel to motion
It’s a traveler’s disease
We are all escapees

Wallfisch is playing the small room at the Rockwood on Jan 4 at 9 PM, an intimate opportunity to get to know her often slashingly lyrical, individualistic mix of majestic orchestrated rock, elegant parlor pop and jazz.

Jess Elder’s tinkling piano mingles with Wallfisch’s delicate uke and Kenneth Salters’ atmospheric cymbal washes in the album’s optimistic opening ballad, The Ship. Over swooshy organ and surreal electric piano, Wallfisch unleashes years’ worth of pent-up venom in The Shadow of Your Ghost, one of the alltime great kiss-off anthems. “You counted every moment that we spent, like a poor man counts each miserable cent,” she sings with a misty regret – and it only gets better from there. Elder’s titanic organ solo is one of the album’s high points.

The lush sweep of the towering seduction anthem Dandelions, awash in starry keyboard textures, is vastly more optimistic. The brooding counterpoint of the Solar String Quartet float above Elder’s circular, minimalist piano riffs in Anymore, a terse, bitter breakup ballad. The album’s catchiest song, capped off by an ornately gritty glamrock guitar solo by Elias Meister, is Lullaby Girl, which could be peak-era mid-70s ELO. Wallfisch’s allusively imagistic portrait of an unnamed musician’s grimly elusive search for some kind of inner peace packs a wallop.

‘In Runaway Child, Wallfisch builds a coyly detailed, Tamara Hey-esque tale of breaking free,over the boleroish pulse of Pablo Menares’ bass and Elder’s calypsonian toy piano. The group follow the starry, wistful piano-and-cello ballad Summer Solstice with Choices, a chromatically bristling, cabaret-tinged 6/8 anthem. Imagine Linda Thompson fronting Procol Harum: “The witching hour closes in fast…by dancing in circles, we’ll end up in flames.”

The hushed Solitude in a Song – Wallfisch sharing some surprising insights into how she writes – is the album’s most minimalist track. She goes back to cabaret-rock with The Truth, an anxious, brief mellotron-and-piano number. The album’s most traditional, commercial number is Bo Ba Bo; Wallfisch brings it full circle with the title track, Blood and Bone, a dancing, waltzing, Mozartean parlor pop number. Wallfisch deserves to be vastly better known than she is.

Trippy, Kinetic, Lavishly Orchestrated Sounds and an Alphabet City Gig by Gadadu

Gadadu are sort of a slower My Brightest Diamond, or a more soul-influenced Arc Iris. Strings shimmer and shine, layers of acoustic and electronic keys mingle and echo, and the songs on their new album Outer Song – streaming at Bandcamp – don’t follow any standard verse/chorus pattern. They’re bringing their lush, often hypnotic art-rock swirl and pulse to an intimate gig at the Treehouse at 2A on Oct 26 at 10ish. Be aware that there’s a $12 cover.

When’s the last time you heard a majestically string-fueled trip-hop anthem with a prepared piano solo? That’s the opening track, The Lion, Nicki Adams supplying that alongside blippy electric piano, the Rhythm Method String Quartet providing the sheen above frontwoman/violist Hannah Selin’s cutting, slightly acidic vocals.

Exquisite Corpse is a coy funhouse mirror pastiche shifting suddenly and unexpectedly between psychedelic soul, a New Orleans groove, kinetic My Brightest Diamond art-rock, and trip-hop. Patrick Adams’ trumpet wafts and then blazes through the cloudbanks of orchestration.

The cover of the Beatles’ Julia is an odd choice, but the ensemble redeem themselves with both psychedelic and orchestral touches, drummer Arthur Vint propelling the group to greater heights than Paul McCartney probably ever imagined.

Selin’s pizzicato viola sparkles in tandem with her enticing vocals and the electric piano as the simply titled Life gets underway, shifting between a scurrying brightness and enveloping atmospherics. Tony Park’s clarinet contrasts with dancing, pointillistic keys amid the washes of strings in Makeshift Constellations, which could be a lavishly orchestrated early Linda Draper tune.

Chided has some of the album’s most striking, swelling and shivery orchestration: it’s the mightiest  track here, deflecting subtly into a bossa-inflected groove with the trumpet soaring overhead.

Selin’s playfully abstruse lyrical imagery reaches a savagely allusive focus in Train Blues:

Sold to brand-new folksy lemon daffodils with sorbet
Snooked-out lofts ate octopus allowed by the free trade-owned
Whistle for the wind to take me on a journey
Sand and feelings fly, the draft is in a hurry
Take me off this train

Its towering sway and dissociative train-terminal sonics bring to mind singer/keyboardist Sara McDonald’s mighty NYChillharmonic. Daniel Stein’s bass rises gracefully to puncture the swirl in the album’s final cut, Bay Songs, an ensemble of cellist Valeriya Sholokhova, violinists Sana Nagano and Gabe Valle and clarinetist Hila Zamir supplying alternately vast and stark dynamics. There’s a lot to get lost in here.

Another Dark Lyrical Masterpiece From Elysian Fields

Elysian Fields earned an avid cult following for their torchy, noir sound, fueled by frontwoman Jennifer Charles’ smoldering vocals. Since the 90s, they’ve become more epic and cinematic, so their latest album, Pink Air – streaming at Bandcamp – is a something of a departure for them. It’s arguably the most starkly straight-ahead rock record they’ve ever made. It’s also their most overtly political album, obviously inspired by the grim events since the 2016 Presidential election. And it’s one of the half-dozen best albums to come out in 2018 so far. The band are currently on European tour; the next stop is the Milla Club, Holzstrasse 28 in Munich on Oct 19 at 8 PM. Lucky concertgoers can get in for €15.30.

Polymath guitarist Oren Bloedow’s eerie chromatic bends open the album’s first song, Storm Cellar, a black-humor look at the complications of creating art while the whole world is dying – literally. Charles paints a wry picture of bunker life over a steady, simple, anthemic new wave groove from bassist Jonno Linden and drummer Matt Johnson.

The jangle of Bloedow’s twelve-string alongside Simon Hanes’ Strat open Star Sheen with Church-like lusciousness, then the two mute their strings as the song sways and Charles’ opiated vocals contemplate solitude and a certain kind of self-deception:

Only dark can feed the soul
If you don’t manipulate it
When a silent earth has spoken
Planets swoop intoxicated

Likewise, the spectre of death lingers in the distance in the muted Beyond the Horizon:

And though the flames are low
I know that they’re climbing
The neolithic flint that’s making a spark…

Thomas Bartlett’s steady lattice of electric piano anchors guest trumpeter CJ Camarieri’s balmy solo.

The guitars get growlier and Charles’ vocals get sultrier in Tidal Wave, a new wave-ish throwback to the band’s early days. Over backdrop that grows from hazy to hypnotically direct, Karen 25 is arguably the album’s most chilling track, an allusively grisly dystopic scenario from a very imminent future:

I met Karen 25 the last days of the archives
Our instructions scrub the files
From the master hard drive…

Over Bloedow’s spare, poignant jangle, Charles’ breathy sarcasm addressing an unnamed patriarchal figure in Start in Light is absolutely withering:

This world could be bought and sold
So many people
Busy doing what they’re told
But the right stuff
Ain’t the right stuff
It’s just old

Rising from nebulous to bitingly anthemic, the album’s centerpiece is Philistine Jackknife, a spot-on portrait of “festering piehole’ Donald Trump and his “horrowshow that’s now livestreaming:”

Can we smoke him out
Tear him from the garish tower
Mercenaries standing by
Clocking in by the hour

Dispossessed is a contemplation of the the challenge to find any kind of stability in these precarious times. The most elegiac. apocalyptic number here is Household Gods, a horror-stricken gothic tableau, Charles intoning soberly about “Watching from a window like a shadow play/Down below, no one can tell that they’ve run away.”

With a searing Bloedow solo at the center, the album’s hardest-rocking track is Knights of the White Carnation, a spot-on critique of the neoliberal drift toward fascism:

A dark illumination
A murdering resurrection
Lords and Queens of the castle walls
Heirs of the great plantations
Hands that whipped black skin
Hold the keys of the private prisons

The album winds up with Time Capsule, a wistfully uneasy childhood reminiscence that brings to mind Bloedow’s collaborations with another extraordinary singer, Jenifer Jackson. Look for this album on the best of 2018 page at the end of the year.