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No New Abnormal

Tag: rachelle garniez review

One of the World’s Sharpest, Funniest Song Stylists Salutes the Dearly Departed

Rachelle Garniez has gotten more ink from this blog than just about any other artist, starting with the very first concert ever reviewed here, an installment of Paul Wallfisch‘s fantastic and greatly missed Small Beast series in the late summer of 2011. Since then, she’s released plenty of studio material as well, from the song ranked best of 2015 here – the metaphorically searing, Elizabethan-tinged Vanity’s Curse, from her album Who’s Counting – to her charming, oldtimey-flavored An Evening in New York duo record with Kill Henry Sugar guitar wizard Erik Della Penna earlier this year.

The latest installment of Garniez’s recent creative tear is yet another album, Gone to Glory – streaming at Spotify – her first-ever covers record. The project took shape at a series of shows at East Village boite Pangea, beginning as an annual salute to artists who’d left us the previous year. The secret of playing covers is simple: either you do the song in a completely different way, or make it better than the original, otherwise it’s a waste of time. In this case, Garniez splits the difference between reinventions and improvements.

Playing piano, she opens the record with a quote that’s almost painfully obvious, but still too funny to give away. Then she switches to accordion over the strutting groove of drummer Dave Cole, bassist Derek Nievergelt and violist Karen Waltuch for a polka-tinged take of Motorhead’s Killed By Death. That’s the album’s funniest song, although most of the rest are equally radical reinventions: Garniez has a laserlike sense of a song’s inner meaning and teases that out here, time after time.

She does Prince’s Raspberry Beret as a country song and then discovers the slinky inner suspensefulness in a low-key, noir-tinged take of David Bowie’s Scary Monsters. It’s super creepier than the original, as is a slightly stormier version of Mose Allison’s Monsters of the Id. She switches to piano for a brooding, lush, string-infused version of Jimmy Dorsey’s My Sister and I, a World War II refugee’s tale originally sung by Bea Wain in 1941.

Aretha Franklin is represented twice. Garniez’s droning accordion imbues The Day Is Past and Gone with an otherworldly druid-folk ambience. Her whispery, subtle solo piano take of Day Dreaming is all the more sultry for its simmering calm and mutedly cajoling intensity. Her tender delivery of a pillowy, orchestrated version of Della Reese’s Don’t You Know has much the same effect.

She keeps the sepulchral stillness and poignancy going through a folky arrangement of Kenny Rogers’ disabled veteran’s lament Ruby Don’t Take Your Love to Town – it’s infinitely sadder than the original. Sharon Jones’ 100 Days, 100 Nights gets a dark bolero-tinged interpretation that rises to a brassy peak

Garniez mashes up a little Piazzolla into her gently lilting version of Frank Mills, from the Hair soundtrack, playing up the song’s stream-of-consciousness surrealism. Nancy Wilson’s How Glad I Am has a lush retro 60s soul vibe, in a Bettye LaVette vein.

Garniez’s spare, gospel-tinged piano and subued vocals reveal the battle fatigue in the worn-down showbiz narrative of Glenn Campbell’s Rhinestone Cowboy. She closes the record with an apt, guardedly hopeful cover of Leonard Cohen’s Anthem. There’s a crack in everything, and that’s how Rachelle Garniez gets in.

Big up to the rest of the ensemble, who elevate many of these songs to symphonic levels: violinists Paul Woodiel and Cenovia Cummins, violist Entcho Todorov, cellist Mary Wooten, french horn player Jacob Garniez, multi-reedman Steve Elson, trombonist Dan Levine, trumpeter John Sneider, harpist Mia Theodoratis, harmonica player Randy Weinstein and backing vocalists Amanda Homi and Jeremy Beck.

Charming, Deceptively Sophisticated New York Songs From Rachelle Garniez and Erik Della Penna

To what degree does being born and raised in a metropolis empower the ability to demystify it? Are native New Yorkers better able to cut through centuries of myth and romance to see the grit and blood underneath? Or does an immigrant, whether from outside the country or simply another state, have a broader perspective? Rachelle Garniez and Erik Della Penna assess those questions, and much more, on their debut collaboration, An Evening in New York, streaming at Spotify.

Both artists were born and raised here. Each songwriter’s own catalog has a rich historical sensibility: Della Penna with Americana-tinged superduo Kill Henry Sugar, Garniez mostly as a solo artist but occasionally with bands ranging from alt-country pioneers Mumbo Gumbo to ecstatic delta blues/New Orleans jamband Hazmat Modine. Each artist tends to favor subtlety and detail over fullscale drama: they make a good team. The two don’t have any shows together coming up.  Garniez was scheduled play the release show for her first all-covers album, a salute to recently deceased artists including Leonard Cohen, David Bowie, Aretha Franklin and others, on March 15 at 7 PM at Dixon Place, but the show was cancelled due to the coronavirus scare.

On the duo record, Della Penna plays the stringed instruments and Garniez handles the keyboards. There’s a retro charm but also devilish levels of detail in the songs, a mix of mostly oldtimey-flavored originals and a handful of well-known New York-themed numbers from across the decades. On the surface, the title track is a charmingly waltzing turn-of-the-20th-century guitar-and-accordion duet, but there’s a wistful subtext.

Della Penna switches to banjo for his cynically empathetic lounge-lizard ballad, Neighbors, Manhattan Island, a Garniez concert favorite, languidly reflects on how cheaply the land that would become the “Empire City” was purchased from its original inhabitants (who didn’t understand they’d have to leave). Then the two pick up the pace with Talking Picture, wryly prefiguring the kind of tender reassurance an Instagram video can offer.

They follow a brisk instrumental version of the old 19th century vaudeville hit 42nd Street with a starkly resonant, anciently bluesy cover of Hazmat Modine’s surreal Viking Burial. Garniez’s Black Irish Boy is a pretty hilarious recollection of a childhood crush, as well as its aftermath. Then Della Penna takes over the mic for the Appalachian-tinged Zeppelin Song, singing from the point of view of a WWI German soldier hoping to escape the perils of combat by catching a ride on the rich baron’s contraption.

Garniez moves to the piano for a glistening ragtime-infused take of Am I Blue. Della Penna offers a fond Coney Island reminiscence with Wonder Wheel, followed by the slyly cajun-tinged High Rise. The duo put a kazoo in Coffee – as in “Let’s have another cup of coffee, and let’s have another piece of pie.” They wind up the album with their funniest song, We’ll Take Manhattan: you kind of have to live here to get the jokes, but they’re pretty priceless.

The album also includes an elegant take of Bye Bye Blackbird; a coyly spare Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen with a tastily bristling Della Penna guitar solo; and an irresistibly funny version of Irving Berlin’s hokum blues Walking Stick.

The Bryant Park Accordion Festival: Like a Free, Weekly Midtown Golden Fest

The Bryant Park accordion festival is like a free Midtown version of Golden Fest – except without the food. It could also be said that Golden Fest is a two-night, Brooklyn version of the Bryant Park festival, without the blankets and the lawn chairs. Either way, each is a bucket-list experience for New Yorkers. You’ll have to wait til next January 12-13 for Golden Fest 2019, but starting at 5:30 PM every Wednesday through Sept 12, you can see pretty much every global style of accordion music in Bryant Park. The grand finale is on Friday the 14th starting a half hour earlier.

While Golden Fest is a marathon feast that lasts into the wee hours, you can pop into Bryant Park after work and hang out for however long you want. Five different performers play short sets starting on the half hour at five different stations throughout the park until 7:30. Golden Fest is this country’s big celebration of music from across the Balkans and to some extent, the Middle East. While styles from those parts of the world are also part of the Bryant Park festival, so far there’s been a lot of music from south of the border.

It was fun to stop in by a couple of weeks ago to catch a set by Erica Mancini, who pretty much embodies what the festival is all about, considering how vast her stylistic range is. Last year she did blues and swing; her show last week was a slinky mix of cumbia, tango and a bolero. Playing both instrumentals and sad ballads and and singing in nuanced, plaintively modulated Spanish, she was backed by a sensationally good mandolinist who ran through a pedalboard for icy, watery textures, trippy delays and gritty noise loops.It was as if Chicha Libre got back together…with an even better singer out front.

Last week’s show was on the hottest day of the year. That Rachelle Garniez managed to get through four sets without sitting down, with that big box strapped to her back, was impressive enough. That she sang as soaringly and powerfully as she ever has, in that heat, was even more so. She’s probably the best songwriter of the past twenty years, bar none – and that’s not meant as a dis to Steve Wynn, or Hannah Fairchild, or Aimee Mann. Methodically and even energetically, Garniez made her way through Tourmaline, a wistful yet forcefully determined individualist’s waltz, then worked her way up from a suspenseful, atmospheric intro into the strutting, coy hokum blues innuendos of Medicine Man.

She flipped the script on Aesop by reimagining the tale of the ant and the grasshopper in a fairer world where a bon vivant shouldn’t have to choose antlike drudgery to survive. She also treated the crowd on the terrace on the Sixth Avenue side to a deadpan verse or two of the Stones’ Paint It Black – which in its own surreal way was just as twistedly fun as the Avengers’ cover – and also the lilting, pre-apocalyptic tropicalia of Silly Me, from her 2000 album Crazy Blood.

And playing button accordion, fiery Venezuelan Harold Rodriguez really worked up a sweat, backed by supple bass and percussion in a literally volcanic set of rapidfire cumbias, a merengue tune and a handful of vallenato standards that got the expat crew singing along. He’s at Barbes with the group on Sept 17 at 9:30 PM

This week’s installment of the festival, on Sept 5 starting at 5:30 PM features singer Eva Salina and accordionist Peter Stan playing haunting Romany ballads,  Cordeone doing Portuguese fado laments, bandoneonist Laura Vilche playing tango, and Romany swing accordionist Albert Behar, among many others.

The Spellbinding Rachelle Garniez Tops the Bill at This Year’s Bryant Park Accordion Festival

What’s the likelihood of being able to get what amounts to an intimate, personal show from the world’s greatest English-language songwriter? A handful of New Yorkers got to experience that at last night’s edition of the ongoing Bryant Park Accordion Festival, following Rachelle Garniez across the park to various stations for tantalizingly brief fifteen-minute mini-sets.

Even though there were two dozen other accordionists playing in the park’s four corners and next to the fountain on the Sixth Avenue side, it was impossible to resist taking in two sets from Garniez. What was most fascinating was to watch her mash up elements of latin, klezmer, zydeco, classical, punk rock and even a bit of opera, banging out one song after another without the hilariously surreal, politically-charged stream-of-consciousness intros and jams that have made her legendary among New York performers.

The best song of the night was Tourmaline, a bittersweet waltz that works on innumerable levels: ultimately, it’s about rugged individuality triumphing against all odds. Without any more fanfare, Garniez let the rest of her songs speak for themselves.

The funniest moment was during Jean-Claude Van Damme, a tongue-in-cheek shout-out to a pitchman for antidepressants. She got everybody laughing when she reached the part about certain personality traits that have to be brought under control – then hammered that word again, and again, until everybody within earshot got the message. The faux-operatic outro, where she took a flying leap to the very top of her formidable four-octave vocal range, was pretty funny too.

She also played the jaunty, cabaret-infused Just Because You Can (Doesn’t Mean You Should), whose corollary is “just because you should doesn’t mean you can,” along with the slyly strutting, seductive Medicine Man, packed with all kinds of coy double entendres. She’s emceeing the festival’s closing night a week from today on June 21 at 6 PM, which might be the single best concert of the year, a bill that includes the Bil Afrah Project, who recreate iconic Lebanese composer Ziad Rahbani’s legendary 1975 Bil Afrah album; pyrotechnic Romany accordionist Peter Stan’s new band Zlatni Balkan Zvuk, Brazilian accordionist Felipe Hostins’ new forro group Osnelda; and cumbia accordionist/crooner Gregorio Uribe leading his slinky big band in celebration of Colombian Independence Day.

The festival’s only drawback is that it’s such a feast that there isn’t time to see everybody on the bill. It was awfully cool last night to watch accordionist Simon Moushabeck make his way through Arabic modes with all sorts of enigmatic passing tones, in two abbreviated duo sets with oudist Brian Prunka, mixing up steady, serpentine originals with a Fairouz cover or two.

Further to the west, Sadys Rodrigo Espitia played equally slinky, catchy cumbia and vallenato numbers. When he forgot the words to the hit Cumbia Del Oriente, a woman in the crowd sauntered over to the mic: and sang them with serious Colombian pride.

It was also cool to get to watch popular busker and Thee Shambels accordionist Melissa Elledge jam out cinematic themes and a Johnny Cash classic, then make noir blues out of Beethoven. Late one night a couple of years ago in the Second Avenue F train station, after a Bowery Ballroom show, Elledge played what had to be the most heartwrenchingly gorgeous version of Erik Satie’s Gymnopedie No. 1 ever. So it was refreshing to be able to just chill on the grass and hear her think outside the box without the usual subway stresses. Garniez may be the world’s most brilliantly eclectic songwriter, but as an instrumentalist, Elledge is on the same page.

Before the big blowout on the 21st, there’s another night of mini-sets from another amazing cast of accordionists at Bryant Park on July 19 starting at 6 PM, with a lineup including avant garde and klezmer player Shoko Nagai, pan-Mediterranean wizard Ismail Butera, jazz luminary Will Holshouser and Ed Goldberg & the Odessa Klezmer Band.

Rachelle Garniez Releases 2015’s Best Album, a Harrowing, Richly Detailed Portrait of the Here and Now

Dichotomies run deep throughout Rachelle Garniez’s latest album, Who’s Counting, streaming at Spotify. Optimism and despondency, irresistible laughs and corrosive anger sit side by side. The music is spare, uncluttered and for the most part unhurried. Everything counts for something, even the subtlest touches. Funny/creepy hospital room sonics channeled via the highest stops on her accordion; faux sleigh bells that could be cruelly faux-Christmasy, or maybe just guardedly festive. Even the jauntiest tracks have a dark undercurrent, while the darkest ones are understated, even gentle. While the music draws on many retro styles – saloon blues, Louis Armstrong torch song, Brecht/Weill cabaret, 19th century Celtic New York balladry – it’s irrefutably in the here and now, an artifact of a year of refugee death marches, tribal bride murders and the devastation of Garniez’s beloved Manhattan as the stampede to cash in on what’s left of the real estate bubble leaves entire neighborhoods trampled and crippled. Garniez relates all those narratives in many voices: an innocent, a bawdy belter or a shellshocked witness, sometimes a parade of personalities in the same song. As a bittersweetly accurate portrait of the here and now, it is unrivalled in 2015 and for that reason is the best album of the year, maybe the best album in a career that includes more than one brilliant one.

Garniez’s work over the past fifteen years or so is not an easy read. Very often, the window of interpretation hangs open, as far as the degree of subtext or sarcasm lurking in the shadows underneath. On the surface, Medicine Man – a remake of a sultry hokum blues strut originally released on her 2003 Luckyday album – builds a steamy atmosphere fueled by the gusty brass of Hazmat Modine, of which Garniez is also a member. A closer listen reveals a thinly veiled plea for some relief from a lingering angst. Little Fish – a Cajun-flavored duet featuring the Hazmats’ banjo player Erik Della Penna, originally released on Garniez’s eclectic 2000 album Crazy Blood – is addressed to a missing person who might be missing for keeps. And the album’s most irrepressibly dancing number, Flat Black – a simple bass-and-vocal duet that looks back fifty years to Sarah Vaughan’s work with Joe Comfort – is a blackly droll look forward to the singer’s funeral, where everybody’s going to “sit shiva by the river, have a little chopped liver.”

That’s the bright side of the album. The dark side is harrowing, even devastating. Garniez plays spare gospel-tinged piano against an ambered horn chart on the title track, in the moment in every conceivable sense of that phrase. She maintains that mood, taking it up a notch for awhile, on the vivid, photorealistic New York Minute, on one hand a fond reminiscence of a Manhattan childhood in the days before helicopter parenting, on another a very uneasy portrait of a budding eight-year-old existentialist. And Manhattan Island – one of several miniatures interspersed enigmatically between songs – grounds the current speculative crisis in centuries of history.

The album’s highest points are also its most brooding. The Elizabethan Britfolk-flavored Vanity’s Curse opens as a suspensefully crepuscular portrait of a dotty old lady’s well-appointed lair but quickly moves to illuminate the sinister source of all that luxe: it’s impossible to imagine a more relevant song released this year. The haunting, starkly quiet A Long Way to Jerusalem follows an ages-old Talmudic tale, recast as a shattering chronicle of women abused and tortured over the centuries. And It’s a Christmas Song (watch the cool video) offers a contrarian view that will resonate with anyone whose tolerance for corporate holiday cheer has maxed out. As the song swings and bounces along, Garniez has no problem with revelry. “If you gotta shop, please support the mom & pop,” but:

Let’s celebrate the birth
Of redefining worth
Start a full-scale reconstruction
Of a flawed global economy
Take down corporate tyranny
Promote local autonomy

It figures that Garniez would wait til the album’s last song to finally drop her guard and let her message resonate, pure and simple. That’s a Christmas present worth sticking around for. Garniez plays Barbes on January 7 at 8 PM, then she’s back there on January 17 at 7:30 PM.

Rachelle Garniez Brings Her Harrowing Bon Vivant Existentialist Songcraft Back to Pangea Next Week

“The Ant and the Grasshopper fable made me cry, as a kid…it’s good I lived long enough to rewrite it,” Rachelle Garniez told the rapt, date-night crowd in the warmly lowlit, intimate piano room at Pangea last night. Her version of Aesop’s tale flips the script: the bon vivant grasshopper gets a second chance because the diligent, hardworking ant relents and realizes that her happy-go-lucky compatriot deserves it. Plus, she knows she’s been busted, since the grasshopper caught her dancing at the end of of a hard-earned day…just like a grasshopper would. Garniez played that song on accordion, as a tango, starting out darkly ambiguous and then brightening as the narrative went on. It dates from early part of her career and traces a familiar theme, optimism in the face of harrowing odds against it. She revisited that theme, playing both piano and guitar, throughout the show. She’s back at Pangea (Second Ave. between 11th and 12th Sts). at 7:30 PM on December 14; cover is $15.

Garniez’s raptly eclectic new album Who’s Counting is just out, so she played several cuts from it, backed by bassist Derek Nievergelt’s terse pulse. Much as there were a lot of jokes and a lot of laughter from the crowd, there was a persistent, dark undercurrent throughout this performance, consistent with the songs on the album. As she told it, Garniez was an existentialist by age eight, when she was riding her banana seat bike all over her old Upper West Side stomping ground. That song was a mix of barrelhouse piano blues and post Laura Nyro blue-eyed soul.

Garniez eaplained that she’d written the jaunty cabaret-blues Just Because You Can for jazz chanteuse Catherine Russsell, but then had second thoughts and decided to steal it back. “I asked for it first,” Garniez revealed. She reinvented the honkytonk waltz January Wind as a countrypolitan piano ballad and used a slinky, fingersnapping version of the stripped-down, blackly amusing bass-and-vocal number Flat Black as a platform for a snidely funny sendup of beauty products that promise immortality. The evening’s funniest tune was A Christmas Song, the new album’s coda. “People out here are dying of consumption, I mean the conspicuous kind,” Garniez deadpanned. “But if you got to shop, support the mom and pop!” Words of wisdom from a Manhattan-born and raised artist.

All that fun was anchored by just as much depth amidst the hostility of the world around us. Solo on acoustic guitar, Garniez took her time through the Elizabethan gothic ambience of Vanity’s Curse, arguably the album’s strongest track. On the surface, it’s a peek around a dotty old rich lady’s home. The subtext, which Garniez takes out of the shadows into the spotlight as the song goes on, reveals the sinister source of the wealth that bought all the tchotchkes and comfortable eccentricity.

The high point of the night, at least intensity-wise, was a hauntingly minimalistic take of A Long Way to Jerusalem, another song from the new album. It was the one point where Garniez let outright wrath into her voice, low and menacing as she put out an indictment for slavers and sex traffickers and clueless users who’ve bought into centuries’ worth of misogyny. And there’s a livewire political subtext: when Elijah arrives to show the daughters of Jerusalem the way out, he’s too hammered to find the door.

After the brooding existentialist art-rock soul of the album’s title track and the droll operatics of Jean-Claude Van Damme – a hilariously skewed look at this generation’s version of Mother’s Little Helpers – Garniez encored with a swinging, relaxed take of Silly Me, the warmly and guardedly optimistic opening track of her 2000 cult classic album Crazy Blood. “I never thought I’d live to see this century,” she intoned, gentle and balmy over guest guitarist Beledo’s elegantly picked flamenco lines. She was probably speaking for probably half the room, especially the black-clad oldschool neighborhood types who’ve been a mainstay of her downtown fan base for the better part of the past two decades. It’s hard to think of anyone who embodies the irrepressible spirit of those days in the here and now like Garniez does: you can find that in the welcoming back room at Pangea next Monday night.

Rachelle Garniez Stuns and Seduces the Crowd at Pangea

Many cognoscenti in the New York music scene consider Rachelle Garniez the best songwriter in town, and some would argue that she she might simply be the best songwriter anywhere. A couple of nights ago at Pangea she bolstered that argument, playing to a rapt and wildly appreciative hometown crowd in a duo show with bassist Tim Luntzel. Despite having to sit because he was in a walking cast, he supplied terse, elegantly elastic lines to anchor Garniez’s acerbic, erudite, occasionally feral playing as she alternated between acoustic guitar, accordion and piano.

As a performer, Garniez is devastatingly funny, although her songs often pack a wallop that comes from the opposite end of the emotional spectrum. One of her favorite tropes is to introduce them via slow, contemplative, frequently psychedelic intros that give her a launching pad for deviousy surrealist, deadpan humor that seems completely fresh and off-the-cuff but is actually more thoroughly composed than anyone realizes. What varies from show to show is the punchlines: it’s impossible to think of anyone who has as much fun flying without a net as Garniez.

And there’s always something relevant lurking behind the jokes. What seemed like it would be blissed-out musings on deep-forest beauty turned in a split second into caustic commentary on global warming…which then introduced a sly, vamping, bluesy stripper theme. That one she played on accordion, accenting the song with some unexpected horror on the low end and then a coyly sinister flatline motif at the very end. Likewise, she painted a dreamy early morning riverside scenario and then flipped the script, tying it into the perils of gentrification. That led into the metaphorically slashing if gently waltzing Tourmaline, the semi-precious gem in the title a metaphor for all things not quite perfect, or accepted, embellished with Garniez’s usual umpteem levels of meaning. As Garniez tells it, anyone who might dis you for having something in common with that stone “Is only just snow on your screen.”

Playing piano, she made the connection between Facebook and crack cocaine (Garniez is equally disdainful of both) in the gospel-tinged God’s Little Acre, an unrepentant kiss-off from a former party animal who’s been tracked down (or stalked) by a fling from a past decade. And in a bouncy, blackly amusing new one, just bass and vocals, she explained that at her funeral, she doesn’t want any ordinary Cadillac hearse: she wants an El Camino instead. How many other songwriters would identify a funeral flower car by its make and model, never mind using that image as a metaphor?

Beyond an irresistibly funny, sarcastically operatic shout-out to Jean-Claude Van Damme and his  endorsements for antidepressants, the best song of the night was a starkly baroque-tinged new guitar song inspired by her European tourmate Kyrie Kristmanson. Yet again, Garniez filled in the details of what would seemingly turn out to be a comfortable, sympathetic portrait of an old lady and her tchotchkes…but revealed the source of the money funding all the decor as “The bludgeon and blade.”

And she is New York to the core. Feeding off the crowd’s energy, she wound up the set with People Like You, which opens as an uneasiy and ambiguous Far Rockaway reminiscence, then takes on a blithe, boppy Rickie Lee Jones bounce before Garniez drops the artifice and bares her fangs, in a withering sendup of gentrifier status-grubbing:

It’s people like you who don’t know pride from shame
It’s people like you who always stay one step ahead of the game
It’s people like you who never place a face before a name

Then she quoted from Taylor Swift and brought down the house.

Garniez is just as fearless when it comes to having special guests: other vocalists might be intimidated by sharing the stage with singer Carol Lipnik and her otherworldly, soaring four-octave range, but not her. Lipnik and pianist Matt Kanelos delivered plenty of thrills with a spellbinding, melismatic take of Oh, the Tyranny, a hauntingly awestruck track from their new album Almost Back to Normal. A little later, torchy chanteuse Angela McCluskey provided some plaintive intensity of her own in a Billie Holiday-inspired diptych, pianist Paul Cantelon providing brilliant, Debussy-esque ripples and lustre.

Garniez has a long-awaited new album due out on November 13; her next gig is at Barbes on Sept 3 at 8 PM. Lipnik continues her weekly Thursday 7 PM residency at Pangea this month. And McCluskey and Cantelon debut their new dancefloor groove band, Saint Bernadette – with Garniez on accordion – tonight, August 26 at City Winery at 7.

Two New York Chicks Play the Year’s Best Twinbill, Then Go Their Separate Ways

The best doublebill of the year so far was back on the 14th of the month at Joe’s Pub, when Rachelle Garniez and Carol Lipnik gave the crowd a lot to laugh about and plenty to get completely lost in. The distinctively “New York chicks,” as Garniez put it, each played a duo set, Garniez with bassist Tim Luntzel and Lipnik with pianist Matt Kanelos, but neither were the least bit low-key. Garniez grew up on the Upper West Side when it was much more of a Wild Wild West neighborhood – and that wasn’t so long ago. Lipnik’s childhood Coney Island is a rare New York hood to revert to that direction. Garniez rode waves of poignancy and irresisistibly sardonic humor; Lipnik set a mood of mysterious, otherworldly, luminous beauty early on and maintained that all the way through, save for a creepily hilarious goth-pop cover of The Twist, with a nod to Klaus Nomi. Both artists have shows coming up that no doubt will be just as good, Garniez at Barbes at 8 on June 4 and Lipnik at Pangea on Second Ave. between 11th and 12th Sts. at 7:30 on June 14 and continuing Sundays throughout the month.

Garniez opened the show: when she wasn’t segueing from one number to another, she eased her way in, improvising an intro, teasing the audience with a stream-of-consciousness rap that got the crowd howling even as she snuck in snide references to everything that plagues the East Village these days, from global warming to gentrification to antidepressants. For that matter, she could have been referencing just about anywhere. Her first number was Kid in the Candy Store, a coyly bluesy cabaret tune that she reinvented this time out as Marc Ribot-esque acoustic guitar skronk. Who knew?

She switched to accordion, strutting through the sultry Medicine Man and waltzing her way through the even more defiant, metaphorically bristling individualist anthem Tourmaline. Her new material worked on as many levels as you would expect from what has become, over the years, a deep and iconic repertoire. A skeletal, bluesy guitar number went in a more Waits direction, a defiant bon vivant’s look forward to her own fun funeral. The best song of the night was another new one, an understatedly chilling, apocalyptic Britfolk-tinged waltz that wouldn’t have been out of place in the Richard Thompson songbook. Then she went to the piano for some East Village gospel, then God’s Little Acre, a vicious slap upside the head of any would-be stalker trolling Facebook for a girl he had the hots for in a past century. She drew the most laughs of the night with her closing number, an appreciative faux-operatic faux-homage to opioids and Jean-Claude Van Damme.

Lipnik and Kanelos opened with a rippling, neo-baroque song about the oyster and the sand, as she told the crowd. With an awe-inspiring four-octave range that was as strong in the ominous lows as it was in the stratospheric, bone-chilling, sometimes playfully ticklish highs, she kept the crowd hushed except for a few comedic moments. Lipnik’s back catalog is actually a lot more diverse than this show let on – she’s an avatar of Coney Island phantasmagoria and circus rock. But this was the album release show for her new one, Almost Back to Normal, a metaphorically searing, lushly atmospheric art-rock cd that looks back to similar albums by Nico and Laura Nyro.

Kanelos kept the pedal down for a rippling resonance, his steady chords hitting on the beat as Lipnik mined the songs’ ominous subtext for all it was worth. Water imagery was everywhere.  Lipnik worked every corner of her magical voice, in command but not overstating it: vibrato, echo effects, droll operatics and skin-peeling swoops to places in the sky where there’s probably no air. She voiced her attempt to sonically translate a William Blake illuminated manuscript as creepy, incisive art-rock, then built to the album’s title track with a titanic, white-knuckle intensity as she reached for the rafters and held on for dear life.

An “anthem for crows” offered a resolute Occupy movement mantra for anyone who wanted to seize it.  Beyond that LMAO version of The Twist, there was also a Mexican/Weimar cabaret mashup, an echoey, angst-laden version of Harry Nilsson’s alienation anthem Lifeline, a galloping, rather macabre setting of a poem by dark 70s cult favorite and Allen Ginsberg pal Helen Adam and a showstopping, haunting apocalyptic anthem by Kanelos to close the night. Representing for the hometown team, Garniez and Lipnik didn’t throw their hats in the ring and offer a deathmatch challenge to any of the new arrivals from Malibu and Bloomfield Hills and Fort Worth, but the subtext and the final score was clear: New York 2, Suburbia 0.

Rachelle Garniez Releases Her Most Intriguing, Inscrutable Album

Sometimes the best albums take the longest to get to know. Which isn’t any surprise: if you can figure out exactly what an album is all about the first time around, maybe it isn’t worth hearing again. Rachelle Garniez has been making good and frequently transcendent ones since the late 90s. Her new one Sad Dead Alive Happy, just out this past January, is the fifth by the virtuoso accordionist/pianist/chanteuse, who’s fluent on guitar and bass as well. Over the years, she’s covered more ground more expertly, unpredictably and entertainingly than pretty much any other songwriter alive: noir blues, lushly orchestrated piano anthems, oldtime country, oompah punk, salsa, tango, psychedelia, torch songs and ragtime, to name a few genres. Her lyrics work multiple levels of meaning for a style that sounds completely spontaneous but probably isn’t: songs as intelligent as hers are typically very carefully thought out. This new album is her most opaque and inscrutable: musically, it’s an unexpected turn deep into gospel and soul music.

As usual, keyboards are front and center here, along with Garniez’ nuanced, occasionally dramatic multi-octave vocals. She pulls out all the stops on the opening track, the album’s funniest, a surreal homage (in the rough sense of the word, anyway) to Jean-Claude Van Damme, who’s apparently been hawking antidepressants on tv. It could be sincere, or it could be the album’s cruellest, most sarcastic and punkest song. Garniez’ grand guignol operatics on the outro sound more like Queen than anything else: it’s so beautifully blissful it’s hard to believe. God’s Little Acre is overtly sarcastic and even more upbeat, an unrepentant anthem for hedonists who might not want to reconnect with old conquests via Facebook. Lunasa begins echoey and hypnotic and morphs into an Irish ballad: “Tonight is the last night of the summer of love, the last night of summer, my love,” Garniez sings sweetly, but as usual, there’s an undercurrent of menace that finally emerges after a charming tack piano interlude. Nothing is exactly as it seems here.

If you’ve always wondered how Matt Munisteri would play an arena-rock guitar solo, you’ll find out on Parallel Universe, which melds 80s stadium rock into a slow gospel ballad – and surprisingly, it works. Metaphorically, it’s about rediscovering an earlier self: how that might be achieved is open to interpretation. A couple of tracks here have a previous life as well. The jaunty, clever swing tune Just Because You Can first appeared on Catherine Russell’s This Heart of Mine in 2010; Garniez’ own version is more straight-ahead. And the refusenik soul anthem My House of Peace was first released as a vinyl single by Jack White (who also plays drums on the song) on his Third Man Records label in 2009.

The album’s final track, Land of the Living brings the gospel to a crescendo both lyrically and musically: it’s an Aimee Mann drug dirge that trades that artist’s harrowing edge for a streetwise optimism. “When you fly, do you like to get a running start?” whispers Garniez as the song slowly kicks in; by the end, it’s two women hanging out, smoking on a stoop somewhere in Manhattan, one gently nudging the other toward a more robust future. You could call this gospel for nonbelievers – paradoxical as that sounds, it’s the kind of theme Garniez thrives on. Check back at the end of the year and see if this gets the nod for best album of 2012: it just might. In the meantime, it’s streaming in its entirety at myspace.

Rachelle Garniez At Barbes: Under the Weather But On Her Game

Listen up fellow music bloggers – Rachelle Garniez always makes good copy. Last night at Barbes wasn’t even one of her best shows, and it was still pretty classic. Through oompah punk, indomitable gospel-rock (My House of Peace, her 2009 single produced by Jack White and released on his Third Man label), oldtimey swing and a hilarious pseudo-homage to Jean-Claude Van Damme, she improvved her intros, jamming her way into every song, playing accordion – and piano on a few songs mid-set – backed only by her longtime bassist Dave Hofstra. She made an unexpected segue into Take the A Train, speaking for everyone who’s ever ridden that train to the end: it’s the reeeeeeaaaaaaal slow way to get to the Rockaways. Garniez is New York to the core and usually makes that obvious, very subtly: tonight was not one of those nights. More about that a little later. She opened the set with torrents of accordion and the torrents of images in Tourmaline, a characteristically inscrutable, lyrically rich cut from her 2008 album Melusine Years. “Of all the green-haired girls I’ve seen to date, you blow them all away,” is the turnaround. Then she romped through the oldtimey swing of Kid in the Candy Store, another image-loaded story about a guy who’s reached overdose point with something most of us can’t get enough of.

Garniez asked the crowd if anybody knew who the answer to the mystery of who built the food pyramid – in her world, it’s topped by a crystalline controlled substance that turned out to be sugar. Later on she gently pondered whether there’s anything left that’s not googlable. Other performers might bash you over the head with the implications; Garniez just posed the question, made everybody laugh and then swung her way through God’s Little Acre (from her just-released album Sad-Alive-Dead-Happy), an unapologetic reminiscence of playing the field (and not-so-fond recollection of a face from those days trying to reconnect on Facebook). Much of Garniez’ recent work – Melusine Years in particular – has an elegaic quality, much of that for the edgy New York of the 80s where she grew up. That quietly and matter-of-factly reached critical mass on a slowly unwinding version of People Like You, a blithely sarcastic pop tune from Melusine Years, here an anthem that began with memories of drinking pink Champale, sleeping on the beach and then going for a swim at night out in the Rockaways. She mentioned she tried doing that several years later, in the early zeros, only to be stopped by the cops, a moment that left her temporarily speechless. As the song went on, she finally dropped her guard – something she hardly ever does – and lashed into the posers who’ve move to New York from suburbs far and wide, have taken over her old turf and believe their own bullshit about how special they are. It’s a song that could be an anthem for the Occupy movement. She closed the show with a request, Silly Me, from her 2000 Crazy Blood album: “I never thought that I’d live to see this century,” she mused as the chorus swelled, “Now we’re here, we’ve got the chance to do it better.” Garniez is back at Barbes on January 5 at 8 playing new songs from the new record.