New York Music Daily

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Tag: pink noise band

Revisiting a Great Doublebill

As regular visitors here know, this blog’s original and pretty much single focus was live music. Then the publicists, and the artists themselves, got out their catapults and started flinging albums over the moat and the parapets and the siege was underway. It hasn’t ended yet, and it won’t anytime soon. But in the spirit of being different from the rest of the blogosphere and the media – let’s not even get into the social media babble-on – it’s time, once again, to do some catching up on what some usual suspects who make New York such a hotbed of live music, even in this era of death by gentrification, have been up to.

A few weeks back at the Gutter bowling alley in Williamsburg, it was a trip to see Kill Henry Sugar with a bass player. As frontman/guitarist Erik Della Penna told the crowd, it had been ten years since the sardonic Americana-tinged rockers had one. And the new guy didn’t just play roots, he did lots of fluid, melodic runs and even a couple of solos way up the fretboard. All this freed Della Penna to cut loose more than he usually does when it’s just him and drummer Dean Sharenow. As usual, the songs were catchy, Della Penna’s vocals were unselfconsciously soulful and imbued with his signature dry wit. These guys have been around since the 90s; much as they beat the White Stripes to the guitar-and-drums thing, it was good to see them reinvigorated by some welcome low end.

The world’s creeepiest cinematic instrumental band, Big Lazy regrouped earlier this year, with a new rhythm section of Pink Noise‘s Yuval Lion on drums and the Greenwich Village Orchestra’s principal bassist Andrew Hall. From the perspective of someone who first saw Big Lazy back in the 90s and was blown away – when they were known as Lazy Boy and popping up in detective show soundtracks all over the cable channels – they’ve never sounded better. Jarring as the segue with Kill Henry Sugar was, the two bands made a great doubleibll. With his reverb turned up to the usual eleven, guitarist/bandleader Steve Ulrich led the trio through the lickety-split, marauding noir rockabilly of Princess Nicotine and Just Plain Scared, Lion hitting all over his hardware, Ulrich’s prickly staccato attack like a sharpshooter with a machine gun. Their rhythm section has never been more purposeful or emphatic, and Ulrich’s relentless chromatics were as macabre as always. Hall bowed his bass to max out the murky menace of the classic Theme from Headtrader to open the night; a little later, Lion kept the ba-BUMP shuffle of a new song going on the rims and cymbal heads and anything else he could find to create an incisive ping or click.

Most of the set was new material. Ulrich’s warped, quavery lapsteel bent a bolero out of shape with a mushroomy surrealism, followed by a warmly bucolic Bill Frisell-ish theme, moving methodically through apprehensive echoes to unexpectedly straight-ahead, distorted, anthemic rock. Spare, desolate riffs turned savage in a split second, Ulrich furiously tremolo-picking the strings, Dick Dale style. Bob Dylan keyboardist Mick Rossi made a cameo on harmonium, adding a surreal suspense on one of the new numbers. A little later, they brought up slide trumpeter and Sexmob mainman Steven Bernstein to wail and shimmy with his usual wry humor on a long, blackly amusing version of Gone, from the band’s third album, then a funky new number in 5/4 time with a droll fake fanfare and quotes from the Mission Impossible theme, and a long, shapeshifting Nino Rota movie mini-suite. They finally closed with a a haphazardly evil version of Uneasy Street, a concert favorite that could have been a trainwreck, as Bernstein built an unexpectedly bright break in the relentless cumulo-nimbus atmospherics, but wasn’t – Ulrich decided to stay in the sunlight a little longer before bringing it all back into the abyss. The band is scheduled to spend some time in the studio this summer, which couldn’t be better news from a group who for years were arguably the best band in New York.

Big Lazy Returns with a Vengeance

With a big echoing crash and then a swipe of toxically reverb-drenched guitar, Big Lazy were back like they’d never left. If memory serves right, the world’s darkest noir instrumental band’s last gig had been a record release show in June of 2007 at Luna Lounge in what would soon afterward become the Knitting Factory space. It was the loss of a drummer (Tamir Muskat leaving to join Gogol Bordello and then lead Balkan Beat Box) that did them in. In the wake of the breakup, guitarist Steve Ulrich composed for film and tv, and joined forces with Pink Noise’s Itamar Ziegler, with whom he eventually put out the best album of 2012, the luridly menacing if prosaically titled Ulrich Ziegler. Friday the 12th at Barbes, the back room was packed, a mix of neighborhood folks along with what’s left of the band’s cult following from when they were a regular weekend attraction at Tonic.

Second and third versions of bands are usually pale imitations, but this lineup might be Big Lazy’s best ever  – and they had the brilliant Willie Martinez, the band’s original drummer, guesting on bongos on several songs. The new guys seemed to be jumping out of their shoes to be playing Ulrich’s material. Who knew that drummer Yuval Lion (another Pink Noise alum) could swing as hard as he did? And it figures that Ulrich would have to go outside the rock world, in this case, to the Greenwich Village Orchestra, for their first-chair bassist Andew Hall. Amped as high in the mix as Ulrich’s guitars, Hall anchored the songs in a murky yet precise pulse, adding an occasionally wrathful, pitchblende wash when he played with a bow. Meanwhile, Lion was having a ball with his hardware, pinging and rattling away when he wasn’t swinging a country backbeat or a nonchalant funk groove.

In practically two hours onstage, the band began with the brand-new Bernard Herrmann-style 6/8 blues Swampesque and ended with a typically out-of-breath, desperate Princess Nicotine. In between, they played mostly new material: Ulrich may not have been doing many shows lately, but he’s hardly been idle. Don’t Cross Myrtle blended monster movie improvabilly and purposeful Mingus swing, Lion riding the traps. Lunch Lady chugged along, shedding jagged chromatic sparks, followed by the Lynchian highway anthem Minor Problem, Ulrich’s lapsteel swerving eerily like Eraserhead behind the wheel.

Another new grey-sky highway theme, The Low Way unwound apprehensively, paving the way for a murderously spacious take of Skinless Boneless, a standout track from the band’s second album. Ulrich never stops reinventing his songs – no disrespect to Bill Frisell or Marc Ribot, but there is no more intense guitarist in the world right now. Martinez came up to join them and underscore the murderous tiptoe insistence of Gone, from the band’s third album, and then the rapidfire chase scene Just Plain Scared. The highlight of the second set was Uneasy Street, a morose classic from the band’s first album, Hall unleashing a river of ultraviolet ambience when Ulrich let his lurid, tremoloing lines fade out and handed over the melody. Big Lazy are at the Gutter bowling alley in Williamsburg on May 3 at atound 10 with Sexmob’s Steven Bernstein guesting on trumpet: if dark sounds are your thing, this is a show not to miss

Ulrich Ziegler: Album of the Year

Stephen Ulrich is arguably the preeminent noir guitarist of our time. With his signature reverberating blend of twang, skronk and occasional savagery, his playing is darker and more intensely focused than Marc Ribot, more urban than Bill Frisell. For several years Ulrich led the chilling noir instrumental trio Big Lazy; these days he writes big-budget soundtracks for film and tv. He also has a new project, simply called Ulrich Ziegler, with fellow reverb guitarslinger Itamar Ziegler from Pink Noise. Their self-titled debut album is the noir album of the year, maybe the decade – a menacing mix of echoey guitars, slinky beats and haunting cinematic themes. About half the tracks are streaming at the band’s Reverbnation site.

The two guitarists play with such a singlemindedly commitment to maintaining the mood that it’s hard to distinguish between the two: those who’ve seen them live might be able to differentiate between Ziegler’s terse, clenched-teeth precision and Ulrich’s lapses into more slashing, unhinged phrasing. And as absolutely macabre as much as this music is, it’s also playful, imbued with plenty of gallows humor and lively jousting between the musicians. Ulrich’s old Big Lazy pal, Balkan Beat Box’s Tamir Muskat seems to be the guy rumbling behind the drums on most of the faster numbers, while Kill Henry Sugar’s Dean Sharenow holds down the backbeat on the midtempo ones; Wave Sleep Wave’s Yuval Lion is in there somewhere too. Peter Hess, also of Balkan Beat Box, plays a small arsenal of reeds along with Philip Glass collaborator Mick Rossi on keyboards.

The bucolic, Frisell-ish opening track, Since Cincinnati offers very little hint of the menace that’s coming down the pike. A slowly shuffling blue-sky theme, Ulrich’s lapsteel soars and sways, Rossi’s organ swirls as a southwestern gothic theme begins to appear on the distance. Likewise, Twice Town is Lynchian to the core, a Jimmy Webb-style country-pop melody somewhat ironically pinned by undercurrent of unease. A little flailing on the guitar strings, more lapsteel far on the horizon and then a quietly menacing pulse takes it out: a mini-movie for the ears.

Swords and Sandals is where the album really starts to get creepy, a chromatically-spiked, apprehensively tiptoeing bolero that builds tension to the breaking point. A Cuban string quartet eventually joins them and adds lushness – although this album was recorded in bits and pieces around the world, you’d never know it.

Another real creeper is Hermanos Brothers, a funky lowrider serial killer theme. The guitars go from brutal and skronky to a wide-open, warm tremolo, Ulrich eventually opening up the chorus to a shimmery lunar eclipse sostenuto. Tickled To Death sounds like a doublespeed remake of the jaunty Big Lazy latin noir classic Curb Urchin, Ziegler’s outrageously nimble, lickety-split bass pushing Ulrich into dizzying frenzies of tremolo-picking. The layers of guitar grow to the point where it’s literally impossible to tell who’s playing what.

The two best, and darkest tracks here might be the waltzes. His Story is sort of a theme for the haunted room at the Plaza hotel where the ballet dancer went out on the ledge and never came back. A gleefully macabre marionette theme, it sets evil upper-register guitar clusters over pinpoint rhythm, Hess’ baritone sax moving it out of the shadows just enough to raise the horror factor a tinge. Ita Lia is more moody and morose, with hints of Belgian musette and Django Reinhardt and ghostly high organ flourishes that offer something approximating comic relief but never quite go there.

Pieces, a murky, morbid one-chord jam, builds to a shivery baritone sax solo that bass saxophonist Colin Stetson (from Tom Waits’ band) bludgeons off the page. Pipe Dream, an opiated lullaby shifting in and out of rhythmic focus, sounds like the Beatles’ And I Love Her done as a jazz ballad. The most sardonic track here is the wryly bouncy Fornever, while Space Enthusiast, an outer space dirge of sorts, wouldn’t be out of place on a recent Church album.

They go deep into spaghetti western shadows with Cross My Heart, Ulrich’s menace growing as the band follows him from hypnotic to lush, then down to a dead rodeo clown interlude of sorts (that’s just one possible image out of many that this music evokes: give it a listen and come up with your own). The album ends with a casually expert twin-guitar cover of Caravan as laid-back as the Ventures’ version was frantic, Ulrich’s fuzzbox attack building from Ziegler’s offhand cynicism. After a certain point, to try to rank one classic album over another becomes meaningless. Is Mingus Mingus Mingus better than Angelo Badalamenti’s first Twin Peaks soundtrack? Is Miles Davis’ score to Ascenseur Pour L’Echafaud (Elevator to the Gallows) better than this album? Not really. They’re all classic. One thing for certain is that if this blog is still lurking in the shadows when they get really dark at the end of the year, you will see this album somewhere around the top of the best albums of 2012 list.