New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Tag: portishead

The Bright Smoke Earn Comparisons to Joy Division

Lots of groups draw comparisons to Joy Division. Inevitably, all of them fall short. None of them can match that iconic band’s shatttering gothic art-rock grandeur…and nobody goes as far into the abyss as Ian Curtis. The Bright Smoke are a rare exception to that rule. In a way, their new album, Terrible Towns – streaming at Bandcamp – could be the great lost Joy Division album between Unknown Pleasures and Closer. Except that frontwoman/guitarist Mia Wilson doesn’t sound anything like Ian Curtis. However, she does have a powerful, angst-fueled low register, something akin to Cat Power without the affectations (ok, hard to imagine, but just try). She’s as strong a tunesmith and lyricist as she is a singer, and an inventive guitarist. Her songwriting is equally informed by oldtime acoustic blues and dark rock: other than the guys from Manchester, the new album occasionally brings to mind the live Portishead album. The Bright Smoke are playing the Cameo Gallery on May 19 at 9 PM; cover is $8.

As you would expect from such a relentlesly dark outfit, their songs are on the slow side, and usually in ninor keys. Beyond having a woman out front, the Bright Smoke distinguish themselves from Joy Division in that they’re considerably more swirly and psychedelic. Live, drummer Karl Thomas colors the songs with a terse, almost minimalist precision and the occasional jazzy flourish. Lead guitarist Quincy Ledbetter is a monster player, a master of texture and timbre, who although he has blazing speed doesn’t waste notes: if Bernard Sumner had started playing earlier than he did, he might have ended up sounding something like Ledbetter. Lately, for atmospherics, onstage the Bright Smoke have been including an electroacoustic element.

The album’s opening track, Hard Pander, could be Sade covering Joy Division. Wilson’s lyrics are enigmatic, sardonic, often imbued with gallows humor and this number is typical:

I don’t have to fake my inclinations
I don’t have to draw on my scars
You’re in over your head, girl
Pander right and pander hard

The way the bass rises, a low harmony with the wary, wounded guitar overhead in Like Video is a recurrent, artful touch throughout the album: this band really works every dark corner of the sonic spectrum. And Wilson’s cynicism is crushing:

I hear the Midwest stretches on for miles
And calls you back and it’s always on time
I hear it don’t have a past like mine
I hear the Midwest don’t have a voice to raise
Just settles down on her knees and prays
And makes you feel big in your small way
Baby, I’m in town today

On Ten also works a recurrent trope, Wilson’s elegant fingerpicking against layers and layers of lingering ambience, a savage dissection of Notbrooklyn ennui:

Join, join, join the ranks
Of the pretty, white, and jobless
And pray your daddy’s money away
At St. Sebastian’s School for the Godless

August/September is a diptych, the first part a plaintive piano waltz evoking Joy Division’s The Eternal, the second fueled by a menacing, echoing pulse that ends in crushing defeat: its quiet, sudden ending is one of the album’s most powerful moments. “There’s a bloody side to this, I don’t share your sunny disposition,” Wilson warns in Exit Door, with its wickedly catchy “You wanna know where the money comes from” mantra. Shakedown, a creepy roadhouse boogie in Lynchian disguise, brings to mind Randi Russo. “If there’s a game of losing friends…you and I would be Olympians,” Wilson broods.

Howl builds nonchalantly to an unexpectedly catchy, yet unpredictable chorus that would be the envy of any stadium rock band, a sardonic look at self-absorption lit up by a nimble tremolo-picked Ledbetter solo. City on an Island, with its watery chorus-box bass and 80s production values evokes early New Order and might be the album’s catchiest song. It might also be its most searing one, a kiss-off to a fauxhemian:

Good luck with your pylons
With your city on an island
And good luck with the small false hints
That you live the way I live

The album’s final track, simply titled Or, is a Mississippi hill country blues vamp, T-Model Ford spun through the prism of psychedelia and trip-hop, closer to the band’s stark, spare previous output than anything else here. Look for this around the top of the best albums of 2015 page in December if we make it that far.

A Darkly Entrancing New Album and a Shea Stadium Show from Opal Onyx

Opal Onyx sound like Portishead with a much better singer and more organic, imaginative, atmospheric production values. Frontwoman/guitarist Sarah Nowicki varies her approach depending on the song: her voice can be acerbic and biting, or misty and dreamy, or bloodcurdlingly direct. Matthew Robinson adds texture and terse tunefulness on cello, lapsteel and keys, while Heidi Sabertooth’s electronics enhance the otherwordly ambience. Rich Digregorio plays drums and Cedar Appfell joins on bass on the more propulsive numbers. While some of the tracks on their new album Delta Sands – streaming at Bandcamp – sway along on a trip-hop groove, others are more nebulous and minimalistic. It’s pretty dark music, and much of it you can get seriously lost in. They’re playing Shea Stadium in Bushwick on Dec 9 at 10ish, door charge TBA.

The opening diptych, Black & Crimson could easily pass for a song from the Portishead Roseland album, Nowicki’s eerie chromatics rising high over a staggered, loopy backdrop; then it hits a straight-ahead trip-hop sway. Personal is a big anthem:  the band takes elegantly fingerpicked electric and acoustic guitar tracks and loops them while swirling textures filter through the mix behind them, Noveller style. Likewise, Evaun makes stadium rock out of a darkly bluesy vamp – but keeps a tense, cinematic pulse going, quiet drums way back in the mix with the atmospherics.

Iron Age begins with a minimalist insistence, like Randi Russo as produced by Daniel Lanois, maybe – the music calms, but the menace persists as the echoing vortex grows thicker. Both Fruit of Her Loins and The Devil blend bluesy minimalism and eerie, chromatically-charged cinematics, Nowicki’s impassioned vocals sailing over the murk behind them.

Desperate also evokes orchestrated Portishead, but with cumulo-nimbus Pink Floyd sonics. Arrows Wing begins as folk noir before the rippling keys and atmospheric washes take it even further into the shadows. The album winds up with the stark Bright Red Canyons – just Nowicki’s acoustic guitar and vocals – and then the woundedly echoing title track. Fans of artsy acts as diverse as St. Vincent and My Brightest Diamond will love this.

Summer Memories: A Great, Obscure Show by SLV

SLV are one of the most entertaining bands in New York to watch. They’re all about textures, meaning that everybody in the band is constantly shifting from one thing to another. Frontwoman/multi-instrumentalist Sandra Lilia Velasquez’s other band, Pistolera, plays pretty straight-up jangly rock with a Mexican folk edge. This band is a lot more complicated. Velasquez writes very simple, catchy, direct themes, then builds them kaleidoscopically with an endlessly psychedelic stream of timbral shifts and exchanges between instruments over a hypnotic groove that sometimes rises with a completely unexpected explosiveness. Portishead and Stereolab seem to be strong influences, as is Sade (a singer Velasquez has grown to resemble, but with more bite and energy) and possibly artsy pop bands from the new wave era like ABC and Ultravox.

SLV played a big gig earlier this summer at South Street Seaport that was reputedly very well-attended (this blog wasn’t there). Hot on the heels of that one, they played another one at a small venue way uptown that was not. From the perspective of one of maybe two customers in the entire house, it was like getting a personal SLV show, and that was a lot of fun. Velasquez sang in both English and Spanish with her eyes closed, lost in the dreamy wash of textures floating over the groove – except when she was trading animated riffs with guitarist Mark Marshall, bassist/keyboardist Jordan Scannella and drummer Sean Dixon.

The show was more of a single, integral experience than a series of songs. Marshall kicked it off with with a hammering drum duel with Dixon before the bandleader took the song in a hazy, Sade-esque direction – her moody alto delivery has never been more expressive or enticing. They kept a similarly gauzy/jaunty dichotomy going through the next song, then Velasquez switched from guitar to keys for a number something akin to a funkier update on Peter Gabriel’s Solsbury Hill. From there they made their way through an intricately rhythmic, swaying number that contrasted ambient atmospherics with Marshall’s incisive, stabbing lines.

The most intense number of the night was the most stripped-down one, History, Marshall playing its brooding Neil Young-esque changes as Velasquez intoned the lyrics – a caustic commentary on media duplicity – with a muted anger. Through a Pink Floyd-ish interlude with a spine-tingling, Gilmouresque Marshall guitar solo, an artsy 80s-tinged trip-hop number, and a Beatles/tango mashup with some deliciously icy vintage chorus-box guitar, the band kept up the endless series of elegant handoffs and exchanges. They closed with a jangly, biting version of Never Enough, the opening track on the band’s Meshell Ndgeocello-produced ep, sounding something like a trip-hop version of the old Golden Earring hit Twilight Zone. SLV are back in the studio now; keep your eyes posted for some of this new material to surface sooner than later.

Haunting, Hypnotic Middle Eastern Sounds from Niyaz

In the era of the Arab Spring, it’s become clear that the people of the Middle East have not suffered gladly. As the revolution that spread from Tunisia, to Egypt, to Syria and Greece and soon these shores gains momentum, we owe a debt to its freedom fighters for jumpstarting the movement as it spreads around the world. Canadian ensemble Niyaz celebrate those heroes’ resilience – “Sumud” in Arabic – which is the title of the band’s hypnotically intense, melodically rich new album. The band’s multicultural viewpoint reflects its members’ diversity. Frontwoman/santoor player Azam Ali came to the United States as a refugee from India in 1985; multi-instrumentalist/composer Loga Ramin Torkian originally hails from Iran; keyboardist/drummer/effects wizard Carmen Rizzo is US-based. The rest of the group here includes Habib Meftah Boushehri on percussion and flute, Ulas Ozdemir on saz, Naser Musa on oud and Omer Avci on percussion. Rizzo’s signature sonic manipulation layers the organic textures of Torkian’s jangling, clanking, plunking lutes – rebab, saz, kamaan, djumbush, lafta and also guitar and viol – within a dense, chilly, endlessly echoing wash of drones, percussion loops wafting through the mix with a distant, muffled pulse. The effect is hypnotic, to say the least. The rhythms often give the songs a trip-hop or downtempo electronic lounge feel, albeit with dynamics which leave no doubt that this was created by musicians rather than by a computer.

Whether singing in Persian, Arabic or Turkish, Ali’s nuanced vocals span from longing, to rapturous beauty, to raw anguish: for those who don’t speak those languages, the cd booklet provides English translations. Most of the songs are new arrangements of traditional melodies, often with additional music by the band, which makes sense: in the countries where these tunes come from, improvisation rules. Ironically, the catchiest, most pop-oriented one here, Musa’s Rayat al Sumud (Palestine) is also the most lyrically intense: “No matter how many borders you create, no matter how many soldiers you line up, we will always fly the flag of resistance,” Ali sings in Arabic with a steely resolve. They follow that with another brisk anthem contrasting spiky lute textures with echoey, twinkling keyboards.

Many of the cuts here employ the haunting chromatics of the Arabic hijaz scale: a majestic Afghani folk song sung in Dari (a Persian dialect spoken there), whose message of peace has particular resonance these days; an almost imperceptibly crescendoing Persian love song; a steady, tiptoeing Kurdish tune and a duet by Ali and Torkian over a slinky Ethiopian-flavored triplet groove. A strolling, pulsing song by Ozdemir has echoes of gypsy rock; other songs here sound like an Iranian version of Portishead. The album ends with a gorgeous, longing Turkish epic that slowly comes together after a long, apprehensively crescendoing introduction. Sometimes solemn, sometimes soaring within Rizzo’s signature swirl, it’s the kind of album that sounds best late at night with the lights out.

Trippy Downtempo Atmospherics from Emily Wells

It isn’t every day that someone popular enough to get a Bowery Ballroom gig appears on this page. Then again, not everything that’s popular is stupid. Emily Wells is a prime example. She’s got a new album out, simply titled Mama; her shtick is that she creates intricately trippy, swirling atmospheric pop all by herself on violin, using multiple loops and a million digital effects. Goldfrapp is the obvious comparison, although Wells downplays the vocals here: lyrics and voice take a backseat to the atmospherics. Where Alison Goldfrapp plays a Bond Girl, Wells wears a few faces here, sometimes a come-hither hip-hop vixen, sometimes a country chanteuse, sometimes a goth girl. Whichever direction she goes in, she typically doesn’t go over the top. In most cases, songs based on loops tend to be simple and hypnotic, which makes sense considering that the simpler the underlying riffs or changes are, the less complicated it is to add additional sonic layers on top as they come around again and again – especially if you’re playing them live as Wells does in concert. So there aren’t many surprises here tunewise, in the beginning at least: simple cake, artsy icing. Many of the songs segue into each other here, enhancing the psychedelic feel.

The opening track, Piece of It has Wells’ swaying, surreal muted staccato plucking contrasting with echoey, almost dubwise sustained lines. It gets dreamier and dreamier as the layers of echoey vocals and pinging, high bell-like tones make their way in. Dirty Sneakers and Underwear has shuffling drums and echoey atmospherics which conceal what’s essentially a hip-hop/”R&B” song. It gets creepier and more gothic as it goes along, leaving the pop vibe behind. Sepulchral accordion-like tones and swirly funeral organ pervade Passenger, a trip-hop number, followed by Mama’s Gonna Give You Love, the simplest and most direct track here with its minor-key soul/gospel groove.

Johnny Cash’s Mama’s House is just plain weird, a trip-hop country song with vocal harmonies via a pitch pedal and eventually some rippling banjo – does she play that? Let Your Guard Down goes for a Billie Holiday vocal, the music reaching for a lush late 60s/early 70s orchestrated soul atmosphere that picks up with genuine majesty as the drums rumble and crash. Fire Song has an only slightly restrained ornateness, like something off the live, orchestrated Portishead album: it’s the most overtly classical piece of music here. The last three tracks are a woozy, dubwise trip-hop tune with blippy horn-like patches flitting through the mix; a trip-hop take on delta blues (that actually works!!); and an echoey stab at Nashville gothic.

Who is the audience for this? People who like to end the day with a blunt; fans of dub and trip-hop; and probably because of marketing, trendoids. That seems to be the audience she’s been targeted to, and that’s too bad, because it would be sad if she ended up ghettoized with the rest of the wannabes in the Pitchfork crowd.