New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Tag: punk rock

The Legendary Shack Shakers Validate Their Legend in Brooklyn

Saturday night in downtown Brooklyn, the Legendary Shack Shakers lived up to their legend with a marauding, macabre performance. How does frontman JD Wilkes stay in such great shape? By playing shows like this one. Midway through the set, he left his feet for the umpteenth time, spun in midair and did a full 360 with a perfect Olympic landing. And this was after he’d really worked up a sweat. Athletic stage moves go back long before Chuck Berry, but the Colonel still pushes himself as hard as he did twenty years ago.

When he wasn’t spinning across the stage or frisbeeing a heavy-duty red wooden tambourine into the crowd, he was blowing feral but wickedly precise, Little Walter-ish blues on a chromatic harp, or burning through similarly menacing chromatics on his banjo. He ran his vocals through two separate mics, one straight into the PA along with an old ribbon mic turned up to the point of distortion for a bullhorn effect. Somewhere Lux Interior is stewing with jealousy.

But while the Cramps seem to be one obvious influence on this band, the Shack Shakers are a lot wilder, a hell of a lot faster – they sped up several of their numbers past breaking point – and a lot of the time they sound a lot more Middle Eastern than American. Then again, Wilkes – a respected musicologist and historian of Kentucky mountain music – would probably cite a lesser-known strain of Irish music that made its way to the Bible Belt without losing any of its creepy edge.

And the rest of the band are phenomenal. Drummer Preston Corn kept the express-train-to-hell shuffle going at full throttle, bassist Fuller Condon provided a cool serpentine slink and guitarist Rod Hamdallah burned through the ominous changes with a calm, precise savagery, letitng the blasts from his vintage hollow-body model linger and resonate before firing off another volley of twisted rockabilly or blues.

The Shack Shakers have a new album, After You’ve Gone, out recently, and Wilkes and his conspirators drew heavily on it. Their witheringly cynical, allusively political new take of Worried Man Blues came across like CW Stoneking on crank, while the rapidfire War Whoop gave Wilkes a platform for some extra snazzy stage moves. And like so much of the rest of the set, the dirty blues of Curse of the Cajun Queen were packed with the surreal fire-and-brimstone imagery that’s been Wilkes’ signature since the 90s. You’ll see this show listed on the best New York concerts of 2017 page here at the end of the year.

The Legendary Shack Shakers’ tour continues; the next stop is Dec 1 at around 10:30 PM at the Outland, 322 South Ave. in Springfield, Missouri; cover is $12. 

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Incendiary, Siouxie-esque Dark Guitar Rock From Touched By Ghoul

Today’s Halloween album is Murder Circus, released by ferociously dark, punkish Chicago band Touched By Ghoul last year and streaming at Bandcamp.

From the first few stomping beats from Paige Sandlin’s kickdrum, Alex Shumard’s uneasily rising bass and the roaring chromatic chords of guitarists Angela Mullenhour and Andrea Bauer, the album’s opening track, B.A.C.M., could be a lost gem from Siouxsie’s first album. Mullenhour’s insistent, wounded vocals are more evocative of the goth-punk icon’s raw, early style, before she developed her signature microtonal style.

The rest of the album careens between eras. The second cut, Whores is a mashup of Daydream Nation-era Sonic Youth and early Siouxsie – or the Grasping Straws in particularly assaultive mode. Western Child has a skittish downstroke guitar pulse and a wrathful vocal straight out of Hong Kong Garden.

Rapevan has the same kind of haphazard drive and dirty Bush Tetras guitars, with a tasty scream from Mullenhour. She really pulls out all the stops with her vocals in Immaculate Consumption, which unexpectedly veers from punk thrash to skronk and then back.

“I was lost in a graveyard,” Mullenhour muses as Nice Corpse, a blend of early Public Image Ltd. and classic-era SY gets underway. With its artfully cynical variations on a familiar circus theme, the album’s title track is a real gem. The final cut is the brief, stomping Adios!, awash in a deliciously toxic, swirling cloud of guitar reverb. This makes you wonder what other treats this group have up their collective sleeves. 

An Edgy Debut Album and a Williamsburg Show by Intense Cello Rockers the Icebergs

The Icebergs are New York’s hardest-working cello band. No disrespect to the great Serena Jost, but the Icebergs maintain a punishing late-night gig schedule. If there’s any midnight band in New York, it’s the trio of frontwoman Jane LeCroy, cellist Tom Abbs and O’Death drummer David Rogers-Berry. That’s even more impressive when you consider that LeCroy also fronts the similarly intense, politically fearless avant garde duo Ohmslice with multi-instrumentalist Brandon Ross. The Icebergs have an edgy debut album, Eldorado, streaming at Bandcamp and Ohmslice have a show this Friday night at 8:30 PM at Pete’s.

If you can forgive the appropriation of an iconic album title (ELO’s epic, symphonic 1974 masterpiece is arguably the greatest rock record ever made), this is an edgy, lyrical treat. The opening track, Needleworker is about piecing things back together, literally and metaphorically, LeCroy’s soulful, blues-infused voice channeling 19th century African-American gospel starkness as she chronicles everything she’s got to stitch up over a brisk groove spiced with all sorts of tasty low-midrange riffs from Abbs. This gist of it is that this century’s American culture is hardly woman-friendly.

Sonnets 57 & 58 is a propulsive, echoingly uneasy 6/8 art-rock shuffle, Abbs’ terse overdubs and distant washes of sound over Rogers-Berry’s savagely ornate attack, a cynical, Shakespearean-inspired cautionary tale about women subjugating themselves. The catchy, witchy, hard-hitting Similitude could be a particularly energetic track from Rasputina’s first album

Then the band slows down with Proves My Love, a spare, darkly bluesy, imagistic account of less-than blissful domesticity: “Prison keeps you away from me, I visit you eternally,” LeCroy intones matter-of-factly .

Abbs rattles around a tasty reggae bass riff, Rogers-Berry answering back as Broken Heart vamps along: “I’ll take all your pieces put them together then smash your crown,” Le Croy announces. Swear looks back to an iconic, bluesy Stooges classic, Abbs overdubbing shivery, evil guitar licks way up the fingerboard over the drums’ fluttery accents.

“I’m a different ghost every day,” LeCroy muses in Gold, over a Siouxsie-esque vintage new wave pulse and Abbs’ gritty, distorted multitracks. Borders mingles Raw Power-era Stooges blues with Slits minimalism – it’s as vivid a menacing late-night-urban tableau as it is a defiant Trump-era anthem.

“I can’t find my Eldorado,” LeCroy laments over Abbs’ slinky, bouncing, gnawa-tinged bassline in Bad Map; then she takes her Kafkaesque search further toward hip-hop. As Abbs does throughout many of these songs, he works a lingering/rhythmic dichotomy for all it’s worth in Draw Me. Over an anguished whirl obscuring the song’s ominously bluesy undercurrent, LeCroy offers a catalog of doomed imagery in the album’s most intense track, Gun:

Everything tries
Everything fails
This life is a cross
And a bunch of nails

An echoey mashup of dub reggae and cello metal, Dear Lifeguard is a similarly gloomy oceanside tableau. The album winds up on a similar note with the surreal Decode. In a city oversaturated with vapid indie conformity, it’s good to see these three keeping the spirit of smart, individualistic, fearlessly relevant downtown New York rock alive.

Castle Black Bring Their Towering, Magnificently Dark Roar to Arlene’s This Saturday Night

If you run a music blog, it’s especially validating to watch an artist or an act deliver on the promise of their early days.  A couple of years ago, power trio Castle Black weren’t all that tight, and they were still getting the hang of their instruments. But it was obvious they had something that most rock acts in this city don’t have: fearlessness. For one, they don’t fall back on all the lazy indie rock guitar cliches – the moveable chords, the open chords, the pilfered New Order and Cure licks – that all the richkid Bushwick bands use. Do Castle Black even know what a cliche is? OK, last Friday night at the Well, there were a couple of choruses during the band’s blistering, careeningly triumphant release show there for their latest short album Trapped Under All You Know that were pretty Ramonsey. But all punk bands do that.

Otherwise, it was impossible to tell was coming next, except that it was bound to be loud and hard and intense – and catchy. At the release show at Matchless this past winter for their video Dark Light, guitarist Leigh Celent was starting to really flex her chops as the savage lead player she’s always wanted to be. This time out, she was that person – and bassist Lisa Low is flexing too, with a lot of riffs instead of just a booming low resonance. Drummer Matt Bronner, who was the best musician in the band when they first started, now finds himself propelling one of the most powerful and interesting bands in town.

Celent is really cutting loose on the mic now too. She finally unleashed that wounded wail in all its vengeful glory in the night’s best song, in fact one of the year’s best songs, Broken Bright Star, through all sorts of permutations. finally bringing it full circle to the haggard, elegaic blown-tube opening riff. Watching as the band built steam from from there, through the bitterly anthemic Sabotage, the serpentine, jaggedly noisy Dark Light and then Next Thing, echoing 70s Patti Smith, was just as much fun.

A new number, Man on a Train followed an unpredictable path of doomed late-night imagery. Low’s suspenseful epic-Buzzcocks rumble as Rise slowly got underway gave Celent a long launching pad to burn out of. They ended the show with some of their catchiest numbers: Blind Curtain, which sounded like powerpop Blondie on steroids; Seeing in Blue, the new album’s opening track, smoldering with Fender Twin amp roar and machete postpunk riffage; and the sardonically funny classic punk encore, One Track Mind. Castle Black will probably do a lot of this at their next Manhattan gig this Saturday night, September 2 at 10 PM at Arlene’s. Cover is $10.

Ferocious Power Trio Castle Black Put Out One of 2017’s Best Short Albums

In an era when gentrification, the demise of one venue after another and subway closures all down the line at night have landed one crushing blow after another on the New York music scene, Castle Black’s rise to become one of this city’s best bands is as heartwarming as it is improbable. A couple of years ago, they were playing the usual cruddy circuit of bottom-tier venues that most new bands never gain enough traction to leave. Since then, Castle Black have put out a succession of ep’s, each one better than the other and emerged as a relentlessly touring powerhouse.

Armed with a couple of vintage Fenders, guitarist/frontwoman Leigh Celent has grown into a powerful and distinctive player equally at home with noise and melody. Bassist Lisa Low anchors the music with a looming ominousness while drummer Matt Bronner ranges from rapidfire four-on-the-floor punk to doomy metal to the occasional departure into unorthodox meters, holding the beast to the rails. The band’s latest ep, Trapped Under All You Know is streaming at youtube. They’re playing the release show on August 25 at 10 PM at the Well in Bushwick – they’re definitely loud enough to drown out any of the other bands rehearsing in the upstairs rooms there.

The album’s first track, Seeing in Blue kicks off with Bronner’s boomy tom-tom rolls, Celent building an angst-fueled nocturnal scenario with her guitar and her vocals. It’s part Avengers roar and part enigmatic late-period Bush Tetras, with a little Cramps menace. And it’s as catchy as all those references

Broken Bright Star is one of the half-dozen best songs of 2017, hands down. The catchy, doomy opening guitar riff brings to mind the Vice Squad classic Last Rockers, rising to a richly jangly mesh of guitar multitracks on the chorus. The point where the verse suddenly dips down to just Celent’s vocals, and then explodes with a wrathful guitar chord, will give you goosebumps.

Blind Curtain is just as anthemic and catchy: imagine a two-guitar version of Blondie covering mid-80s Husker Du. The album stays in that relentlessly troubled zone with the distantly Joy Division-inflected last cut, Rise, Celent’s roaring, reverbtoned guitar shards flickering through the “shadows as they rise, again and again again.”  Brief as this is,  you’ll see this album on the best of 2017 page here in December if we’re still all here.

A Brooding Live Film Score and New York’s Most Relevant Gospel Choir at Prospect Park

It wouldn’t be fair to let the month go by without mentioning the wickedly amusing, entertaining score that Sexmob played to the 1925 Italian silent film Maciste All’Inferno at Prospect Park Bandshell a couple of weeks ago. Another A-list jazz talent, pianist Jason Moran, teams up with the Wordless Music Orchestra there tonight, August 10 to play a live score to another more famous film. Selma. The Brooklyn United Marching Band opens the night at 7:30 PM, and if you’re going, you should get there on time.

It’s amazing what an epic sound trumpeter/bandleader Steven Bernstein manages to evince from the four voices in his long-running quartet, which also includes alto sax player Briggan Krauss, bassist Tony Scherr and drummer Kenny Wollesen. Part of the equation is long, desolate sustained tones; part is echo effects and the rest of it is the reverb on Wollesen’s drums, gongs and assorted percussive implements. On one hand, much of this score seemed like a remake of the band’s 2015 cult classic album Cinema, Circus & Spaghetti: Sexmob Plays Nino Rota, especially the brooding opening sequence. With a very close resemblance to Bernstein’s reinvention of the Amarcord main title theme, the band went slinking along on the moody but trebly pulse of Scherr’s incisive bass and Wollesen’s ominously muted and-four-and tom-tom hits.

Yet as much as the rest of this new score followed the same sonic formula (or tried to – as usual this year, the sound mix here was atrocious, bass and drums way too high in the mix), the themes were more playful than that album’s relentless noir ambience. At the same time, Bernstein’s uneasy but earthily rooted dynamics added a welcome gravitas to the movie’s vaudevillian charm. In brief (you can get the whole thing at IMDB): strongman Maciste, stalked by the devil, ends up in hell, fends off all sorts of cartoonish human/orc types and ends up having a potentially deadly flirtation. All the while, he’s missing his true love and family topside. Will he finally vanquish the hordes of tortured souls hell-bent into making him one of their own?

Wollesen built one of his typical, mystical temple-garden-in-the-mist tableaux with his gongs, and cymbals, and finally his toms, to open the score. It’s a catchy one, and the hooks were as hummable as the two main themes were expansive. In addition to the many variations on the title one, there was also a funky bass octave riff that subtly pushed the music into a similarly hummable uh-oh interlude and then back, spiced here and there with screaming unison riffs from the horns and one achingly menacing spot where Krauss mimicked guitar feedback. But the scrambling and scampering ultimately took a backseat to gloom. For this band, hell is more of a lake of ice than fire.

“Is this forest a Walmart now?” fearless ecological crusader Rev. Billy Talen asked midway through his incendiary opening set with his titanic, practically fifty-piece group the Stop Shopping Choir. That was his response to a security guard who’d told him the other night that the park was closed. For this Park Slope resident, not being able to connect with the nature he loves so much and has dedicated his life to protecting is an issue.

When he isn’t getting arrested for protesting against fracking, or clearcutting, or the use of the lethal herbicide Roundup in New York City parks, Rev. Billy makes albums of insightful, grimly funny faux-gospel music…and then goes up to the public park on the tenth floor of the Trump Tower to write more. And tells funny stories about all of that. He was in typically sardonic form, playing emcee as a rotating cast of impassioned singers from the choir took turns out front, through a lot of new material.

Pending apocalypse was a recurrent theme right from the pouncing, minor-key anthem that opened the set: “How can we tell the creatures it’s the end of the world?” was the recurrent question. Relax: they saw this coming a lot sooner than we did and they’ve all come south from the pole for one last feast on our polluted corpses. In between towering, angst-fueled contemplations of that eventuality, Rev. Billy and his crew took Devil Monsanto to task for its frankenseed assault on farmers, the environment, and ultimately the food chain. In the night’s most harrowing moment, they interrupted a towering, rising-and-falling anti-police brutality broadside with a long reading of names of young black and latino men murdered by police: Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Amadou Diallo and many, many more.

Miking a choir is a tough job, no doubt, but the inept sound crew here didn’t help much making Talen and his singers audible over the sinewy piano/bass/drums trio behind them. And it wasn’t possible to get close to the stage to listen since all the front seats, almost all of them left empty, are all reserved for paying customers here now. Ever feel like you’re being pushed out of your own city?

Acerbic, Catchy LA Folk-Punks Las Cafeteras Headline This Thursday at Lincoln Center Out of Doors

Sometimes Las Cafeteras come across as sort of the Mexican Pogues – with an infinitely better singer. Other times they could be a more rock-oriented version of New York son jarocho folk-punks Radio Jarocho. The bilingual Los Angeles band’s punchy acoustic sound has a fearless political relevance to go along with a spiky catchiness. Their latest album, Tastes Like LA is streaming at Bandcamp, and they’re headlining an excellent pan-latin bill at Lincoln Center Out of Doors this Thursday, July 27 at around 10. Fiery, dramatic belter Xenia Rubinos opens the night at 7, followed by trippy downtempo guy Helado Negro and then our own fearlessly lyrical Hurray For the Riff Raff. It won’t hurt to get to Damrosch Park as early as you can; gates open at 6.

The album opens with the catchy Tiempos De Amor, its bouncy, anthemic tune in contrast to frontwoman Leah Rose Gallegos’ biting delivery, an anthem for anyone who would dare create a better world in a time when it’s never been more imperiled, for immigrants or anyone else. The band revisits that theme with the snide lyrical volleys of Señor Presidente a little later on.

Vamos to the Beach – how’s that for Spanglish? – is more carefree, with its shuffling acoustic textures (that’s Hector Paul Flores on jarana tercera, Daniel Joel Jesus French on jarana segunda and Jorge Mijangos on requinto), tinkling glockenspiel and peppy brass. Paletero, a salute to refreshing treats from the guy with the cart full of ices, has a bittersweet, reggae-tinged groove and a chirpy vocal. At one point, if the band switched out the thicket of acoustic instrumentation and keening organ for a more electric arrangement, it would be a dead ringer for a big Cure hit from the early 80s.

Las Cafeteras’ remake of Woody Guthrie’s This Land Is Your Land is definitely the wildest anybody’s ever done with this song, an apt direction to take in this era of deportations and Boris Yeltsin-like demagoguery about border walls. The optimistic anthem Apache is a Mexican take on late 90s trip-hop, while the harmonies of La Morena, a shout-out to a Mexican earth mother archetype, bring to mind New York’s all-female Mariachi Flor de Toloache.

If I Was President features defiantly optimistic rap cameos, matching Gallegos’  resolutely assertive vocals. Likewise, the loping Feo Mas Bello is a joyous look forward to as-yet-unrealized romantic bliss…and possibly a long-overdue reunion with a loved one from south of the border. The album winds up with the unexpectedly C&W flavored Two More Days, tackling that same theme much less opaquely. Crank this up and let’s party for our right to fight.

Powerful Singers and an Iconic Band Celebrate Global Yiddish Music in Central Park

What’s the likelihood of seeing the Klezmatics not only slink, and barrel, and slowly sway through a gorgeous and often haunting blend of minor keys and punk-klezmer romps…but also  getting to see them back two of New York’s most powerful singers? It happened Wednesday night at Central Park Summerstage, where cantors Chaim David Berson and Yanky Lemmer got to take tantalizingly short turns on the mic in front of the band, along with other entertainment on a night celebrating Yiddish music from around the world.

There was a time when being a cantor was just as competitive as, say, African-American gospel music, or a jazz cutting contest. The cantor was the treasure of the temple, the guy you’d send on tour to represent you and thrill the people with his powerful pipes. That tradition has sadly fallen into disrepair in recent years, but it is alive and well on the Upper West Side, at the Jewish Center on 86th St. and also the Lincoln Square Synagogue, where Berson and Lemmer, respectively, hold court.

Berson has a vibrato wide enough to drive a truck through, with Little Jimmy Scott nuance but also Johnny Cash intensity, if you buy those references. He also turned out to be a fluent guitarist as well, adding poignant, purposeful jangle to one of the set’s early numbers. Lemmer’s baritone has a tinge of grit and a similarly steely resonance, opera without the buffo.

He immediately made an impact, sending a shout-out to the 99-percenters in the crowd (which seemed to be pretty much everybody) with a stern march through We’ve Got to Make a Living, an anthem for solidarity in hard times. Then he led the band through an increasingly dynamic, lickety-split, sardonically funny medley of drinking songs. “Drinking songs?” Lemmer deadpanned, “Jews don’t drink. We’re too busy suffering.”

But a little l’chaim never hurt anybody – they did that one, too toward the end of the evening. Berson opened his own set with an impassioned, broodingly rapturous, melismatic improvisation while the band built an ominous wash of sustain behind him. From there, he worked the corners for every bit of chromatic mystery in a mix of numbers that looked forward to messianic redemption and sought worldly solace, either through transcendence or libations.

The Klezmatics finally got a set of their own and reveled in it with the energy of a group, well, thirty years younger. The original rebels of the 80s klezmer revival, they celebrated all things treyf, sexually and foodwise and otherwise in the high-voltage, Romanian-tinged dance numbers, and kept an eye on history with the slower ones. There’s no small irony in that the high point of the evening might have been the slow, subdued dirge The Yoke, a Yiddish translation of a Catalan protest song from the 1960s.

Frontman Lorin Sklamberg played that one on piano rather than his usual accordion, like he did much of the rest of the material, and showed off similar chops: at one point, he hit an unexpectedly feral barrelhouse groove. Likewise, trumpeter Frank London spent much of the night behind an electric piano, constantly tweaking it to get the textures right when he wasn’t hitting ecstatic heights or firing off hundred-yard spirals on his horn. Bassist Paul Morrissett took a turn on tsimbl, the Ukrainian Jewish ancestor of the cimbalom, while violinist Deborah Strauss switched between icepick precision and stark, rustic, otherworldly sustain over Richie Barshay’s playful, jazz-inflected drums. When he wasn’t reaching the rafters on alto sax, Matt Darriau was adding ethereal flute textures or channeling grim Balkan tonalities on clarinet. 

As an encore, Daniel Kahn – star of the upcoming immigration-themed musical Amerike – came up to deliver a Yiddish version of Leonard Cohen song whose expiration date passed a long time, joined by the rest of the night’s performers, among them tongue-in-cheek a-cappella unit the Maccabeats. But then everybody segued into a rapidfire dance number every bit as fun as Man in a Hat, the title track from the Klezmatics’ cult classic 1995 Jews with Horns album, a wry salute to their home turf: “I’m a man in a hat, a Manhattan man,” Sklamberg reaffirmed.

The next Central Park Summerstage event of note starts at 5 PM on June 24, a night of Portuguese music with newschool fado star Sofia Ribeiro and assaultive goth/Stooges punk duo Dead Combo with special guest guitarslinger Marc Ribot. Get there early if you’re going. 

An Intriguing New Album from the Propulsively Enigmatic Parlor Walls

Parlor Walls are one of those great bands who defy categorization. Are they postrock? Postpunk? Noiserock? Psychedelia? Free jazz?

All of the above. Guitarist/singer Alyse Lamb is a charismatic presence out in front of the trio, with as much of a flair for a catchy hook as sonic mayhem. She never plays anything remotely the same way twice. Drummer Chris Mulligan is a beast, playing thick, churning rivers of organ or fuzzy synth lines with his left hand while keeping time with the right and the kickdrum. Alto saxophonist Kate Mohanty adds her signature acidity, acerbity and occasional extended-technique squall, just as she did on the band’s previous record. They’re playing the album release show for their new one, Opposites – streaming at Bandcamp, and available on vinyl – on March 9 at 10 PM at Sunnyvale. Cover is $10.

None of the songs follow any predictable verse/chorus pattern: the group squeezes a lot into short, impactful packages. Mulligan drives the opening track, Crime Engine Failure with something of an altered qawwali groove, Lamb’s catchy vocal hooks against lingering, minimalist swaths of guitar and sax that intertwine as the song goes on. “Cover me…and all that lies in front of me,” Lamb intones amid the stormy cloudbanks of the second track. “You won’t let me bleed when you’re gone.”

The spare/densely roaring dichotomy of Play Opposites brings to mind peak-era Sonic Youth. “Open up your eyes…burn it to the ground…not going there,” Lamb half-sings, half-insists: allusion and unease define this band. Ambassadress juxtaposes Mulligan’s calm organ with stun-guitar blasts from Lamb, up to a tasty, sirening outro.

Love Again has a stomping martial beat, a less inchoate mashup of early Gang of Four and Goo-era SY fueled by Lamb’s swoops and dives. In Teach Me Where to Roam, the band vamps hypnotically as Mohanty hovers ominously over Mulligan’s four-on-the-floor thump, up to yet another simple, catchy, crescendoing chorus and then back.

As the band shifts back and forth from a heavy, syncopated beat, Hesitation alludes to resistance against repression, or at least conformity, arranged around Lamb’s recurrent seven-note slide riff. Shorts bursts from Mohanty pepper the whirling lows of Me Me My, an update on a familiar X-Ray Spex trope; Lamb’s long outro is pretty amusing.

The album’s longest track, Birthday, is an audience favorite,  Albert Ayler-ish sax busting out over a hypnotically circling backdrop. “Don’t you know I’m perfect?” Lamb asks, completely deadpan. The album winds up with the twinkling improvisation Carstairs and then the darkest, most epically anthemic track here, Red Shed. Another winner from one of Brooklyn’s most consistently unpredictable and interesting bands. 

Twisted Valentine Fun with Genghis Barbie

Is there any logic at all to be willing to take a bullet for Dolly Parton, or to at least give Madonna a push out of harm’s way…or to offer that level of allegiance to Lady Gag, or Mariah Carey instead?  Is that just a matter of personal taste? Or a matter of growing up while Ed Meese was assembling the world’s largest porn collection at taxpayer expense…or in an era remembered best for the radiation poisoning known as Gulf War Syndrome …or during the Obama years, when drones were blowing up Islamic wedding parties in the desert?

Or is this just scraping the bottom of the barrel, any way you look at it?

Obviously, you can tell whose side this blog is on. Early Tuesday evening, before any of us were called home for Valentine duty, all-female french horn quartet Genghis Barbie packed the Miller Theatre uptown for a goodnaturedly amusing display of fierce chops and wicked new reinventions of otherwise pretty cheesy material.

Back when your parents or grandparents were kids, they used to call shows like this “pops concerts.” Orchestral musicians would catch a break playing easy charts for instrumental versions of the radio hits of the day. This usually happened at places like the Brooklyn Prom or Coney Island. What differentiated this concert from that kind of schlock wasn’t so much the material as the arrangements and the musicianship.

Genghis Barbie played with an intuitive chemistry and a boisterously contagious camaraderie. Somebody to Love, by Queen – Freddie Mercury’s mashup of doo-wop and opera buffo – got a neat baroque arrangement and an even funnier singalong round at the end led by Leelanee Sterrett, a.k.a. Cosmic Barbie, and then Rachel Drehmann, a.k.a. Attila the Horn. Likewise, the deadpan, steady exchange of voices in Without You – written by Badfinger’s Peter Ham, turned into a hit by another doomed Brit, Harry Nilsson and then tepidly reprised by Carey about a quarter century ago. The quartet – who also include the similarly sardonic, talented Danielle Kuhlmann, a.k.a. Velvet Barbie, and Alana Vegter, a.k.a. Freedom Barbie, went deep into Madonna’s Papa Don’t Preach to reveal its inner oldschool disco goddess. A little later, the group took a Lady Gag number to the Balkans and made a quasi-cocek out of it. They took a detour into the opera world, then jumped forward a century and a half to the Disney autotune era once again. Colorfully yet effortlessly, they switched between bubbly Balkan phrasing and orchestral lustre.

The highlight of the show, at least from this perspective, was a vivid Spanish-tinged instrumental take of the Dolly Parton classic Jolene. The low point was a cover from the catalog of a saccharine California pop group from the 60s who got their start ripping off Chuck Berry and then did the same to the Beatles. For much of that time, one of that extended family band was hanging out with another family – the Mansons. You can read about it in the Vince Bugliosi classic Helter Skelter.

The next concert at the Miller Theatre features the work of hauntingly atmospheric, sometimes shamanic Japanese composer Misato Mochizuki played by amazingly eclectic indie classical ensemble Yarn/Wire on March 2 at 8 PM; $25 tix are available.