New York Music Daily

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Tag: pink floyd

Black String Play a Riveting, Hauntingly Epic, Sold-Out Show in Queens

Last night at Flushing Town Hall, four-piece Seoul band Black String left a sold-out crowd awestruck and blown away with a vast, oceanic, often thunderingly intense set of darkly picturesque, suspensefully and often plaintively shifting themes that transcended any kind of label. The four-piece group improvise a lot, but they’re not a jamband, at least in the hippie sense of the word. They can rock as hard as any group alive, but they’re not a rock band per se. Although traditional Korean themes are central to much of their music, their striking riffs and hypnotically pulsing, kaleidoscopic waves of sound draw just as deeply on the blues, and possibly early heavy metal. They use folk instruments, but their themes evoke vast continental expanses far more than remote villages. In 2018, this band has a franchise on epic grandeur.

Guitarist Jean Oh’s Telecaster sent an icy shimmer wafting through his vintage Fender amp, then bandleader Yoon Jeong Heo responded with an offhandedly savage flicker from the strings of her low-register geomungo lute, and then they were off. Throughout several long interludes, including the night’s opening number, Aram Lee breathed and vocalized through his daegeum flute, adding another layer of surrealism to the mix. Drummer Min Wang Hwang began with washes of cymbals contrasting with a couple of booming floor toms, later in the set switching to doublebarreled janggu drum, then coloring a couple of the quieter numbers with sepulchrally dancing accents on a couple of small hand-held gongs.

Yet for all the band’s titanic sound, their riffs are catchy and anthemic to the point of minimalism. Oh’s majestically sustained flares. awash in digital reverb and delay, often brought to mind Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour. Otherwise, he built dense atmospheric clouds, with a couple of vividly furtive detours into Marc Ribot-ish skronk.

Hwang drove the music from ominous valleys to majestic peaks with a dynamic attack that was more distant thunder than lightning directly overhead. He also turned out to be a powerful, charismatic singer, ranging from insistent and shamanistic, to angst-fueled, melismatic pansori drama on one of the night’s most fiery numbers.

Lee built mournfully expansive ambience with his solos on a couple of the quieter songs, including the aptly titled closing epic, Song of the Sea. With a steely focus, Heo displayed breathtaking speed on the strings, especially considering that the geomungo is plucked with a stick rather than fingerpicked, By the end of the show, she was drawing on all kinds of extended technique, evincing all kinds of ghostly overtones out of an instrument more commonly associated with magically warping low riffage. Throughout the set, she’d spar with the drums, or the guitar, when she wasn’t anchoring the long upward climbs with pulsing pedal notes or octaves.

The rhythms shifted as much as the music. The first number was in 7/8 time; a later song galloped along with a groove that almost could have been qawwali. Arguably, the high point of the night could have been a new, as-yet untitled number with savage salvos from flute and guitar. Black String have been making waves in this country; it seemed that the Korean expat contingent constituted only about a quarter of this crowd. Watch this space for at least one Manhattan appearance this summer. And you’ll find this show on the best concerts of 2018 page here at the end of the year, if we make it that far.

This is typical of the kind of show that you’ll see at Flushing Town Hall this year: their 2018 season is pretty amazing, Barbes/Jalopy/Lincoln Center-quality. The next concert there is on Feb 2 at 7:3 PM at with the Queens Symphony Orchestra playing works by Villa-Lobos, Tschaikovsky and the Beatles. What’s even better is that the show is free; if you’re going, get there early.

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Ward White’s As Consolation: Best Rock Record of 2017

Ward White’s album Bob topped the list of best releases of 2013 here. So it’s hardly a surprise that his latest album As Consolation is by far the best rock record released this year. Most artists who play loud, troubling, psychedelic music usually get quieter and more pensive as the years go by. but since the early zeros, White has gone in the opposite direction.

The new album – streaming at Bandcamp –  isn’t quite as surreal as Bob, but Bob is unlike any other record ever made, a disjointed whirlwind murder mystery psychedelic lit-rock suite. Its closest comparisons are not albums but Russell Banks novels and David Cronenberg films. As Consolation, on the other hand, does not seem to have a central storyline  – other than a relentlessly grim cynicism that crosses the line into sadism and the macabre. White’s worldview has never been more bleak – yet there’s never been this much unselfconscious joie de vivre in his music.

He’s a one-man guitar army here with his lavish but tersely arranged multitracks – for what it’s worth, he’s also an excellent bass player (that was his axe in the legendary Rawles Balls). This time around he’s fallen in love with a vintage analog delay pedal, for an eerie, watery effect akin to running his axe through a Leslie speaker. Now based in Los Angeles after a long stint in New York, he’s joined by Tyler Chester, who plays a museum’s worth of vintage keyboards (or clever digital facsimiles) – he turns out to be a sort of a left coast Joe McGinty, a longtime White collaborator who put out a fantastic album with him in 2009. Mark Stepro, who played on White’s withering 2008 album Pulling Out, returns to the drum chair.

Overarching narrative or not, there are characters who make multiple appearances in these allusively grisly, meticulously detailed narratives. One is the titular girl in Here’s What Happened to Heidi, the opening track. As with Bob, the events are anything but clear. Is this being told from the point of view of a corpse? A murder victim? “”Please tell me it’s not morning yet,” someone pleads again and again.

It’s rewarding to see White getting back in touch with the psychedelia and heavy rock he grew up with as a kid in Connecticut: there are more textures and more stylistic leaps than ever before in what has become a back catalog that ranks with guys like Richard Thompson and Elvis Costello.

The murderously catchy, organ-infused Crater is one of the most straightforwardly sinister cuts here – an incriminating envelope is involved. “Under the stone, don’t fight it, you’ll be at home,” White intones nonchalantly as the band gallops behind him.

A mashup of psychedelic soul and Abbey Road Beatles, Dude is White at his sardonic best:

Girls in California call me dude.
It’s non-negotiable
As smirks and disapproval misconstrued

“A few dreams, that much you’re owed,” White muses to the girl passed out on the sofa as Rhodes piano echoes uneasily in the miniature that serves as the album’s title track. Then he picks up the pace immediately with Spurs, its treacherous western vacation plotline shifting suddenly and strangely between a hard-hitting, syncopated pulse and lushly ethereal cinematics. “The paralyzing fear that we’re alone makes us cling to the humdrum,” White asserts: the rhyme that follows is too good to give away. It’s definitely a first in rock history.

Stepro flurries like Keith Moon throughout Hotel, a mashup of mod and new wave.

The fumes are playing havoc with your senses
You never listened before
Why would you listen now?

We never find out what Heidi, making a reappearance here, has to say to her assailant; White’s tongue-in-cheek, bluesy guitar solo adds a blackly amusing tinge.

White goes to the top of his formidable vocal range in Dog Tags, the narrator telling someone who was “naked on the fire escape: – his killer, maybe? – not to bother to look for the body, over an artfullly lingering remake of Satie’s Gymnopedie No. 1. Then the music picks up with a blast of Beatles and Bowie in Parking Lot: “Frozen onfire in the parking lot, better hold your breath til I count to ten again,” White instructs.

With its tense, broken guitar chords and smoky organ, Stay Low is the most distinctly Lynchian song here: it wouldn’t be out of place in the Charming Disaster catalog. The raging guitars of Coffee Maker echo the sonics on his 2014 release Ward White Is the Matador, a pair of accomplices growing more desperate by the hour. The way White caps off his guitar solo is as cruel as it is priceless.

The psychedelic Twin Peaks narrative Which Pain takes place in a torture chamber: “Too late to turn back now, not too big to fail,” a vindictive narrator tells his victim. More echoes of early-70s Bowie return in The Crows, another chilling tale from beyond the grave. “Sadness will make you insane, leave your cake out in the rain,” White reminds: that’s among the most telling of the many wry and far more subtle lyrical references here. The album closes with Weekend Porsche, a surreal soundscape that slowly coalesces into a reprise of that glam theme. It’s the first instrumental White’s ever recorded and the Eclipse to this Dark Side of the Moon.

Revisiting a Macabre Psychedelic Masterpiece by the Black Lesbian Fishermen

Today’s album for Halloween Month is the creepy, strangely titled 2015 art-rock suite Ectopic Apiary, by the Black Lesbian Fishermen. This masterpiece of slowly crescendoing, crepsucular psychedelic rock – and spinoff of the similarly eerie Gray Field Recordings – is streaming at the Cryptanthus Bandcamp page.

Guitarist/multi-instrumentalist Alan Trench joins forces with fellow multi-instrumentalist R. Loftiss, guitarists Nikos Fokas and Stratis Sgourelis here. Two of the tracks are live; both are epic. The first, Lignite Light is a gentle, pastoral psych-folk nocturne, guitars wafting and gently jangling in a dusky milieu lowlit by quietly resonant wood flute. As it goes on, it becomes a sort of mashup of Brian Eno and bucolic instrumental Pink Floyd. There are hints of what’s to come, but you have to listen closely.

The menace sets in with LIL, guitarist Alan Trench intoning whispery, arcane, mythologically-inspired vocals over a repetitive, dirgey chromatic organ riff. With its subtle Indian raga allusions, moody Middle Eastern ambience and a slow build to a darkly majestic, resonant swirl of organ and guitar, the album’s high point is another dirge, the practically fifteen-minute Ragged Ritual.

Bass, drums and electronic squiggles factor more into the stygian White Reptiles.The guitars return in the second live cut, All In The Green, thirteen minutes of rich, icy-hot, reverbtoned textures over a tersely pulsing rimshot beat, a haunting blend of early Nektar and Country Joe & the Fish at their most acid-drenched.

The doomed final cut, Ice, comes together like a lethal hybrid of Eli Keszler post-industrial gloom and funereal 17 Pygmies spacerock:

They stir on lost and lonely heights
Whilst tender valleys shiver close
Beneath the undiscovered land
Beneath the gaze of ancient eyes
Beneath the arc of ancient skies

Anyone enraptured by this should also seek out Cryptanthus’ latest fifty-minute magnum opus, Green Man ε Ancaster St Martin’s, whose disquieting ambience gives way to austere plainchant-like recorder and harmonium loops, and eventually a mashup of chiming rainy-day folk and sprawling post-Velvets psychedelia.

80s Psychedelic Guitar Legend Russ Tolman Makes a Rare Stop in Brooklyn

Russ Tolman was the leader of one of the 80s’ most legendary guitar bands, True West. Though never as famous as their pals the Dream Syndicate – Tolman and Steve Wynn were in the equally legendary Suspects, and Wynn contributed some gloriously savage lead guitar to True West’s cover of Pink Floyd’s Lucifer Sam – Tolman’s songwriting was no less brilliant. And True West were every bit as incendiary live, fellow Telecaster player Richard McGrath dueling it out onstage with Tolman night after night. The band’s first two albums, Hollywood Holiday and Drifters are iconic: with its brooding layers of reverb guitar and Tolman’s ominous lyricism, the latter is easily one of the fifty greatest rock records ever made.

The original True West lineup hung it up in 1985; there were some sporadic but rewarding reunion tours in the mid-to-late zeros. All the while, Tolman has been releasing albums here and there, from Byrdsy folk-rock to low-key electronic experimentation. If he’s ever played Brooklyn before, it’s been a long time; if he hasn’t, then his show at Pete’s on Sept 14 at 8:30 PM will be his debut in the borough. Either way, he’s overdue.

Tolman’s latest recordings are a couple of singles. With it stomping beat and a whirling lead guitar line that brings to mind another great 80s guitar band, the Rain Parade, Marla Jane could be an upbeat track from True West’s peak era. Something About a Rowboat switches in a mandolin for the Tele Tolman might have played it on thirty years ago. Tunewise, this breakup anthem is just as strong – it’s interesting to compare Tolman’s flinty vocal delivery with the bravado of True West frontman Gavin Blair. Awfully heartwarming to see such an important, underrated artist from back in the day still at it and still at the top of his game.

Algiers’ Enigmatic New Album Looks at Current Day Perils Through a Glass, Darkly

Algiers are one of the world’s most individualistic, relevant bands. Their 2014 debut album was a grim, confrontational mashup of oldschool soul, new wave and postrock, with a fiery populist, anti-racist sensibility. Their latest release, The Underside of Power – streaming at Spotify – is more Sandinista than London Calling . It’s a jaggedly interconnected suits that owes as much to the 80s film scores of Brad Fiedel and RZA’s lavish 90s Wu-Tang Clan sample collages than it does to rock or soul music. Informed by the Black Lives Matter movement, hip-hop, oldschool gospel and Albert Camus, it demands repeated listenings. Like Joe Strummer, frontman Franklin James Fisher is a fiery vocalist but often obscured in the mix to the point where the repeat button is required. But it’s worth the effort. 

Fisher’s fervent gospel-influenced vocals rise over a trip-hop beat and Lee Tesche’s war videogame synth on the opaquely defiant opening track, Walk Like a Panther: Rev. Sekou meets Portishead. With its watery Siouxsie guitar, loopy backdrop and dark cinematic cloudbanks, Cry of the Martyrs gives Fisher a launching pad for fire-and-brimstone imagery with current-day resonance. The equally catchy title track, a hit in camo disguise, is dark Four Tops Motown through  prism of postrock: “t’s just a question of time before we fall fall down,” is the mantra.

Death Match blends Unknown Pleasures Joy Division with Depeche Mode darkwave, building an allusively apocalyptic scenario. With its toxic post-battle ambienceA Murmur a Sigh  echoes that gloom.

Ryan Mahan’s austerelly waltzing piano in Mme. Rieux – a reference to a minor character in Camus’ novel The Plague – adds Botanica plaintiveness to its towering Pink Floyd grandeur. A mashup of dark gospel and trip-hop, Cleveland is a fierce yet enigmatic anti-police violence anthem :

In Jackson Mississippi they don’t have to hide…
We’re coming back…
The hand that finds you behind and ties the the thirteen loops…

The question is who’s making the comeback here, the Klan, or the people? The answer is far from clear.

With its brisk motorik rhythm,  Animals is Wire crossed with the Bomb Squad  The band follows that with the slow, ominously atmospheric  instrumental Plague Years and then the broodingly crescendoing A Hymn For an Average Man, its horror movie piano loops setting the stage for mighty Floyd guitar crunch.

The echoey soundscape Bury Me Standing segues into the final cut, The Cycle the Spiral Time to Go Down Slowly, a pulsing noir soul song awash in sweeping war movie sonics. Spend some time with this album in the dark and then figure out where we’re going to go from here. 

First-Class Tunesmithing from Pastoral Jazz Guitar Great Cameron Mizell

Cameron Mizell is the great pastoral jazz guitarist not named Bill Frisell. Like Frisell, he has a laser sense for a catchy hook, a spacious approach to melody, a fondness for the unconventional and a flair for the lurid that occasionally bares its fangs from deep in the shadows. Mizell’s latest album Negative Space – streaming at Destiny Records – is a trio effort with multi-keyboardist Brad Whiteley and drummer Kenneth Salters. Mizell is playing the small room at the Rockwood on March 13 at 7 PM.

The album’s opening miniature sets the stage, a brief, resonant Frisell-style tone poem of sorts, just a couple of tersely exploratory guitar tracks and a little cymbal work from Salters. Big Tree takes those hints of unbridled gorgeousness and, to paraphrase Richard Thompson, really brushes those treetops, a series of soul-infused echo phrases. The slowly swaying Yesterday’s Troubles, Mizell’s distorted riffage paired with Whiteley’s echoey Rhodes piano, sounds like Beninghove’s Hangmen covering a set piece from Quincy Jones’ In the Heat of the Night soundtrack.

Likewise, Whiskey for Flowers hints that Mizell’s going to plunge into Marc Ribot  noir, but instead hits a warmly vamping pastorale shuffle that builds to an unexpectedly sweet Jerry Garcia-ish peak (it’s inspired by couple-bonding: Mizell’s wife has come to share his appreciation for the hard stuff). By contrast, Take the Humble is a crescendoing funk shuffle that owes more to Booker T than to, say, Scofield, especially when it comes to Whiteley’s organ solo.

Mizell builds a slow burn over Whiteley’s ominously circular Philip Glassine piano phrases on the album’s cinematic centerpiece, Clearing Skies, rising to David Gilmour epic grandeur, Whiteley channeling blues through the prism of REM balladry. Don’t laugh: it works. Likewise, Get It While You Can, a punchier take on the Grateful Dead version of the old folk song Going Down the Road Feeling Bad.

Barter reaches from spare and then expansive Booker T-ish verses toward Pink Floyd grandeur. A Song About a Tree would be a standout track on any Frisell album, a luscious song without words assembled from catchy electrified bluegrass hooks, drifting matter-of-factly further into space. Unfolding has such an odd rhythm – at heart, it’s a reggae anthem – that it almost seems like the drum was a last-minute overdub. The album’s title cut has an ECM feel, Whiteley’s waves of piano building and then receding way too soon: it could have gone on for twice as long and nobody would complain. The final track is part Dark Side of the Moon majesty, part cinematic Ribot menace. Beyond the tunesmithing here, the absence of bass makes this a great practice record.

A Rare Chance to Hear Japanese Psychedelic Band Kikagaku Moyo This Weekend

Japanese band Kikagaku Moyo distill some of the best psychedelic influences of the past half-century. Their songs are long, expansive and shift between eras and genres with a hypnotic elegance. Their latest album House in the Tall Grass is streaming at Spotify. They’re hitting New York this weekend for a couple of shows; tonight, Sept 30 they’ll be at Sunnyvale at 10:30 PM for $15. Tomorrow night, Oct 1 they’ll be at Berlin at 9ish for three bucks less.

The album’s opening cut, Green Sugar kicks off with a dramatic, savagely meticulous flurry of tremolo-picking, then hits a strutting groove, an echoey web of Tomo Katsurada and Daoud Popal’s guitars and Ryu Kurosawa’s sitar over bassist Kotsuguy’s catchy, upper-register bass hook, like a gentler Brian Jonestown Massacre. Spare, twinkling bells and chimes add to the surreallistic, nocturnal ambience until suddenly the guitars take the song down toward metal.

Drummer Go Kurosawa’s careful, precise rimshots propel the jangly Kogarashi, a mashup of electrified Indian folk and Malian duskcore. Spare icicle piano drips between the reverb-drenched acoustic guitar mesh of Old Snow, White Sun. The band builds a sparsely lingering, slow post-Velvets ultraviolet ambience in the one-chord instrumental jam Melted Crystal, then picks up the pace with Dune, a catchy, upbeat Japanese folk theme, resonant Pink Floyd grandeur over a jaunty surf-tinged groove.

Pastorally trippy echoes of the Church, Jenifer Jackson, Sergeant Pepper-era Beatles and late 60s Grateful Dead filter throughout the album’s most epic track, Silver Owl, up to a surprise doom-metal crescendo. The group follows that with the swirly spacerock interlude Fata Morgana.

The tricky rhythms and surfy guitar of Trad offer no hint that the band’s about to take its Japanese folk melody into majestic Pink Floyd territory, then rise to White Light/White Heat freakout. The album closes with the gentle, fingerpicked folk-rock Cardigan Song. If there’s any band out there who sound like they could pull off a double live album, it’s these guys.

Mitra Sumara Keyboardist Jim Duffy Puts Out a Wickedly Catchy, Cleverly Fun Instrumental Album

Jim Duffy is one of New York’s most irrepressibly entertaining and individualistic keyboardists. He had a longtime gig with Americana rockers Martin’s Folly; these days he plays organ in the wildly psychedelic Mitra Sumara, who specialize in covers of classic/obscure Iranian art-funk hits from the 60s and 70s. But he’s also a distinguished songwriter in his own right. His third and latest instrumental album, ominously titled Pale Afternoon, is streaming at Spotify (there are also a bunch of tracks at soundcloud and youtube for those of you who can’t stop multitasking long enough to jump on that fader and ride it down to zero when the ads pop up).

The album opens with Boulevard Six, a dead ringer for a late 60s/early 70s Herbie Hancock movie theme in rambunctious 6/4 time, guitarist Lance Doss contributing a blue-flame solo. The way Duffy’s oscillating Wurlitzer electric piano riff fades into the terse resonance of trombonist Sam Kulik and baritone saxophonist Claire Daly is just insanely cool, like something Brian Jones would have overdubbed on Their Satanic Majesties Request.

Figurine is sort of a variation on the previous tune, a bittersweetly twinkling late-night stroll lowlit by Kevin Kendrick’s vibraphone. If Bryan & the Aardvarks had been a rock band, they would have sounded like this. Once again, Doss fires off a solo, this time channeling late 60s Mike Bloomfield.

The album’s title track turns out to be a slow, summery groove until Doss drifts into sunbaked, stately art-rock, pushing the song toward 70s Procol Harum territory. Duffy’s Fillmore Theme turns out to be a breezy, swinging number, part Bacharach bossa, part Free Design psych-pop, Duffy multitracking his rippling, upper-register Wurly along with lush, fluid organ.

Keep Keeping On is a soul waltz as Booker T might have done one circa 1967, or Quincy Jones might have on the In the Heat of the Night soundtrack, Paul Page’s bass bubbling over the washes of drummer Dennis Diken’s cymbals. The elegant Wurly clusters in Reverse Image are so close to the melody of Figurine that it begs a momentary switch between the two tracks, to see if Duffy is pulling something clever like doing that song backwards. As it turns out, no – they’re just both incredibly catchy, this one close to a goodnatured Big Lazy highway panorama without the exit into David Lynch territory.

Mission Creep is the album’s best and darkest track, Doss’ simmering lapsteel bringing to mind the Friends of Dean Martinez‘s Bill Elm doing something from Dark Side of the Moon. Then with Tenerife, the band return to a sunny Bacharachian backbeat spiced with Doss’ wry soul-jazz lines.

Duffy follows the gently allusive ballad We’ll Never Know (nice theremin impersonation there, dude) with Spurare Il Rospo (The Spitting Toad), a briskly tropical motorik theme that’s a dead ringer for Los Crema Paraiso. The album winds up with Evening Birds, an iconoclastic spin on a hallowed, funereal Floyd tune. Crank this at your next party and get the entire room dancing – ok, everything but that last song.

Fun and inspiring fact: Duffy is one of the few musicians to shift from being a first-rate bassist to an A-list keyboardist. And then put out one of the ten best albums of 2016, more or less.

Ultan Conlon Hits New York With His Broodingly Lyrical, Vivid Grey-Sky Chamber Pop

Irish crooner Ultan Conlon sings with the same kind of hesitancy at the end of a phrase that Morrissey worked for so long – and for all we know, still is working. But Conlon can also sail up high like Orbison and belt like Pierce Turner when he feels like it. His latest album, Songs of Love So Cruel – streaming at Spotify – is a gloomy cycle told from the point of view of an old man looking back on his marriage with all sorts of angst and regret. Right now Conlon’s in town, with a Dives of New York tour in the works. Tonight, August 27 at around 8:30 PM, he’s at Hifi Bar, with the lyrically brilliant, increasingly harder-rocking Linda Draper opening at 7:30. Then tomorrow, August 28 at 8 PM he’s at 12th Street Bar & Grill in Park Slope; on the 29th at one in the afternoon, he’s at Little Water Radio in South Street Seaport.

Conlon’s site doesn’t credit the musicians on the record, and that’s a pity, because the arrangements and playing are first-rate, purist and inspired: a lot of work went into this. It opens with In the Mad, a brisk janglerock anthem with a lush string section that kicks in on the second chorus. Trouble’s brewing right from the start: “It’s wild and desolate in this snow-cold land,” Conlon grouses. He follows with The Golden Sands, a backbeat janglerocker. Conlon’s narrator longs to be swept off his feet, and “You wait for the day but it’s not coming round.”

The Lumberjack, You and Me, the first of the Americana numbers here, is an elegant waltz:

On the way to the Galway railway station
With your brother there so I can’t say what I’m thinking…
A wry smile, we will meet in September
All political lives end in failure…
I don’t grow, I just cling to the vine

“There’s a trail we wore down across the years,” the protagonist laments in the elegaically shuffling, slide guitar-fueled Dance to Paper Roses. Bristlecone Pines is even more wintry and morose, contemplating what hell must be like: “My limbs will mend but there are cracks, and those ones won’t.” Then the band returns to a shuffle groove with Lonely Avenues, the closest thing to the Smiths here, Conlon reaching for the rafters.

The lush art-rock ballad Eternally evokes Pink Floyd, especially when the slide guitar enters: “Oh how my eyes deceive me now, looking out on this minefield…like seeds waiting to explode, to go up in flames.”

Conlon follows the vampy stadium-rock anthem Place Of Sanctuary with the lush, gorgeously bittersweet art-folk ballad The River Flows and The Woods Creep, a duet with Sabrina Dinan. By the time the album closes with the spare, harp-speckled When I Fell in Love With You, it’s clear that this relationship is now one for the ages. Fans of the sad side of chamber pop will have a field day with this.

Bent Knee Bring Their Intense, Unpredictable, Explosive Art-Rock to Bed-Stuy

Imagine a female-fronted Radiohead. Boston art-rockers Bent Knee don’t sound much like Radiohead, but their esthetic is the same, catchy hooks within arrangements that are endlessly surprising and often epic. Unease and anger pervade their enigmatic  lyrics. Frontwoman/keyboardist Courtney Swain sings with an arresting, sometimes angst-fueled voice that trails off with a brittle vibrato. They’ve got a new album, Say So – streaming at Bandcamp – and a 10 PM show on August 24 at C’Mon Everybody. Cover is $10.

This band never bores you. Most of the tracks seem completely through-composed. Very little if anything ever repeats; the hooks come at you fast and frantic, kaleidoscopically. The amount of memorization this material requires for live performance is staggering. The album opens with Black Tar Water – as in “dumping out the black tar water,” be it bongwater, asphalt, drug residue, or strictly a metaphor. Catchy and shapeshifting at the same time, it sets the tone for the rest of the record. Swain’s dramatic flights to the upper registers contrast with chilly, techy keyboard timbres over tricky meters, negotiated nimbly by bassist Jessica Kion and drummer Gavin Wallace-Ailsworth.

Guitarist Ben Levin nicks a droll Beatles trope as Leak Water opens, Swain lamenting that “I try to speak, but I only leak water.” A brief mininalist intro  hardly foreshadows the punchy, ornate neoromantic crescendos in store: Wounded Buffalo Theory comes to mind. Counselor is a dramatic mashup of creepy circus rock, funk, roaring arena rock and hints of horror film cinematics. “Give me kisses, something squishy,” Swain entreats – yikes!

Eve begins as a Kate Bush-style tone poem of sorts, awash in tongue-in-cheek echo phrases until the crushing guitars kick in along with violinist Chris Baum’s crazed swipes and spirals. Stomping peaks alternate with Pink Floyd lushness and lustre as it goes on; an ominous spacerock interlude that haphazardly balances guitar and strings ends this ten-minute monstrosity. From there, an early Bill Frisell-tinged miniature segues into The Things You Love, Swain musing caustically on the emptiness of materialistic excess, over still, starlit ambience that eventually gives way to more horror film textures, pouncing King Crimson-esque ornateness and eventually a funny, faux-dramatic outro.

Nakami hints at tinkly lounge jazz, then moves toward dissociative Peter Gabriel-era Genesis intricacy, with a long, explosively sweeping Japanese-language outro. From there they segue into the sarcastically bustling Commercial, Levin’s bombastic guitars matching Swain’s fake-cheery vocals and keyboard sarcasm.

Hands Up comes across as a case where the satire cuts so close to the bone that it’s hard to tell whether this is a spoof of American Idol cliche-pop, or a halfhearted stab at a genuine Radio Disney hit – although the band seem far too smart to believe they’d ever get corporate radio airplay. The album winds up with Good Girl, rising out of Levin’s darkly spacious solo guitar intro to Swain’s most caustic lyric here:

Don’t be a hassle
Don’t be a rascal
Great minds think too much
But you’re not a scholar
Nor a philosopher
Turn that little light of yours off
Sing with me
And count to three
Soon it will be
Over

A dis at a wet-behind-the-ears limousine liberal, or feminist empowerment anthem? Swain leaves that trapdoor open. Count this beguiling, unpredictable, wickedly smart album among the very best of 2016.