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Amanda Thorpe Goes Deep Into the Noir in Yip Harburg’s Torch Songs

Nobody sings a moody grey-sky melody with as much moving, wounded poignancy as Amanda Thorpe. Although she’s best known as a purveyor of uneasy, rustic Britfolk-influenced rock and chamber pop – she’s the closest thing to Linda Thompson this generation has produced – Thorpe has also been singing jazz since the 90s. And she’s just as hauntingly adept at it, shifting meticulously and sometimes wrenchingly from one emotion to another in a pensive alto. She’ll caress the lyrics on a verse and then hit a wailing, anguished peak on a chorus. But where she works her magic best is in between those extremes.

Thorpe’s new album Bewitching Me: The Lyrics of Yip Harburg was springboarded by a chance introduction to Ben Harburg, grandson of the ubiquitous swing era lyricist. Thorpe reinvents a bunch of old chestnuts as well as several  rarities from throughout Harburg’s career, backed by a tight band recorded mostly live in the studio. Sexmob‘s Tony Scherr plays tersely eclectic guitar, ranging from wee-hours, tremolo-tuned saloon jazz to vintage soul to the downtown grit he’s best known for. Rob Jost plays bass with an edgily incisive, woody tone; Robert di Pietro on drums with his typical, minutely focused nuance; plus Matt Trowbridge on keyboards, Serena Jost on cello and Ray Sapirstein on trumpet. Joe McGinty guests memorably on organ on a shatteringly wounded, nocturnal, oldschool soul-infused take of I’m Yours. Scherr switches to bass on a wryly jaunty, Anita O’Day-style take of Buds Won’t Bud alongside guests Michael Fagan on guitar and Nancy Polstein (Thorpe’s bandmate in the late, great Wirebirds) on drums. And Ben Harburg duets with Thorpe on a droll, tonguetwisting bonus track, I Like the Likes of You, over a bouncy pop backdrop.

Her stab at turning Over the Rainbow into a janglerock anthem, Scherr channeling Bill Frisell, is about as good as anything anyone’s been able to do with it. But her take of the other standard Harburg’s best known for, Brother Can You Spare a Dime, is a quiet knockout, rising out of a creepy, ambient intro with a thinly restrained anger, bringing it into the post-Bush era with a muted vengeance and vivid sense of abandonment. With its haunting, subdued anguish, Thorpe’s noir tropicalia version of Willow in the Wind is even better, fueled by di Pietro’s ominous tom-toms and misterioso cymbal work. Thorpe and the band work their way into It’s Only a Paper Moon as subdued Lynchian noir, then wind it up with an unexpected snarl fueled by Scherr’s bristling chords. And her misty, lushly waltzing, Adrift on a Star raises the doomed deep-sky intensity to a hushed peak.

Jost’s stark cello mingles with Scherr’s sparkly guitar as Paris Is a Lonely Town unwinds into Beatlesque psychedelia. Likewise, the jazziest tune here, April in Paris gives Thorpe plenty of room to remind how much a notoriously romantic city can amplify absence and regret. Old Devil Moon gets a lingering Nashville gothic treatment that grows more sultry the deeper Thorpe goes into the song: the old devil’s definitely up to no good here. Thorpe reinvents I’m Yours as slow swaying, jangly, organ-fueled oldschool soul and follows it with the album’s most sensual number, Last Night When We Were Young, Thorpe airing out her upper register with a lushly breathy, spine-tingling presence.

There are also a couple of considerably more lighthearted songs here. Thorpe has devilishly deadpan fun with all the tricky rhymes and innuendo in When I’m Not Near the Man I Love over the band’s tiptoeing red-neon ambience. And she gives Then I’ll Be Tired of You a swinging vintage soul-infused interpretation. The album’s liner notes compare the chemistry between Thorpe and Scherr to Julie London with Barney Kessel, or Mary Ford with Les Paul, and while this rocks harder than either of those duos ever did, the comparison holds true. As noir music and torch songs go, it doesn’t get any better than this. It this album the best of 2014 so far? It’s one of them.

Don Piper and Edward Rogers vs. the Sound

The Cutting Room’s new Curry Hill space isn’t officially open yet, which is a good thing: at this point in the renovations, the sonics at that unfinished industrial basement at Kent and South First in Williamsburg are better than they are here. Last night Don Piper and his band, and then Edward Rogers (playing the cd release for his new one, Porcelain) battled those sonics. Both played magnificently; both lost the battle. Piper has never written better than he’s writing now, equal parts smart Neil Finn purist pop, thoughtful Mumford & Sons Americana and blue-eyed soul. His superb seven-piece band included Gary Langol on organ, Ray Sapirstein on cornet, Konrad Meissner on drums and Briana Winter on vocal harmonies. After the show, Sapirstein likened this group to a chamber music ensemble, a spot-on comparison: they have the easy camaraderie and expert chops you’d expect from a string quartet. And Piper’s slow-to-midtempo songs leave plenty of space for those virtuoso players to add their own inimitably terse, thoughtful ideas. In just under an hour onstage, they swung casually and methodically from artsy pop songs, to a little further out into the country and back again, with a couple of Bill Withers-ish numbers to turn the heat up a little. Piper’s an excellent singer, especially when he uses the top of his range: too frequently, those frequencies got lost.

‘”We start out at about 1972 and end around 1976,” Rogers told the crowd as he took the stage with his band: Piper, Pete Kennedy and James Mastro on guitars, Joe McGinty on keys, Sal Maida on bass and Meissner on drums again plus a parade of singers. The new album pays homage to the glam era, especially the opening track, The Biba Crowd, a look back at a boutique that served as a focal point for British musicians of that era much as Malcolm McLaren’s Sex did in punk’s earliest days. The band gave it a Celtic-fueled stomp, Mastro’s blazing Mick Ronson-esque lines mostly lost to the sound mix. At the end of a careening, intense version of the apocalyptic Topping the World, Rogers backed off, intoning the song’s mantra, “Chaos rules your destiny” just a couple of times before letting the music fall away. Whether this was intentional, or only an indication that Rogers was sick of trying to holler over the band, the effect was powerful. They wrestled with a handful of big Bowie-esque rockers, as well as the plaintive drunkard’s lament No More Tears Left in the Bottle and then a real showstopper, Commodore Hotel, a poignant, unselfconsciously beautiful ballad sung by its author, George Usher over McGinty’s ornate yet judicious keyboards.

Passing the Sunshine, a catchy 60s psychedelic pop gem from Rogers’ previous album Sparkle Lane, was especially biting, a metaphorically-charged amble through a neighborhood in the process of being priced out of itself. When Rogers brought up Don Fleming to play lead guitar on Separate Walls, it was as if the ghost of Ron Asheton had taken over the stage – to say that Fleming raised the energy level was an understatement, but there was only so much he could do to cut through the mix. After a deliciously raw version of the album’s title track, a song that would have fit perfectly on a late 80s Church album, they ended the show with drony, Syd Barrett-influenced, Black Angels-style murk-rock, which might have been a brave move at another venue; here, it simply seemed that they’d finally found something that made sense in the room. McGinty worked a harmonium furiously as the guitars howled and shrieked and Rogers railed against posers in newly gentrified neighborhoods everywhere.

Morricone Youth, who are always a treat, were next on the bill. But as it turned out, there was one single bathroom serving at least a few hundred people, a prospect discouraging enough to make it an early night.

Amanda Thorpe’s Promenade: Stunning and Seductive

Amanda Thorpe has been a somewhat more elusive presence in the New York music scene lately, but the British expat singer/multi-instrumentalist continues to put out tremendously captivating albums. Her new one, Promenade, is a little more melodically diverse, less overtly dark than her 2008 masterpiece Union Square. As usual, the vocals are astonishing. By turns seductive, aching and charming, Thorpe can still say more in a single wounded bent note (or a raw, soul-infused wail) than most singers can communicate in an entire album. This time around, although most of the songs here are more straight-up rock, she’s followed her jazz muse into territory that most singers simply can’t reach: it’s not just a matter of chops, it’s a matter of soul, and Thorpe has both.

The attractiveness of the tunes often belies a darker undercurrent. Bar Tabac, which is essentially the title track, bleakly traces a woman’s steps from Cobble Hill to the Brooklyn Promenade, daydrunk on bloody marys, alone and miserable, while the band swings along on a jaunty bossa nova bounce lit up by Ray Sapirstein’s blithe trumpet. Monica Says, by Philip Shelley (who also serves as co-writer on the poppier numbers here), sets a portrait of a woman insisting she’ll never be happy again against crunchy Willie Nile-esque powerpop with some snarling slide guitar by Tony Scherr. Thorpe’s hypnotically gorgeous layers of vocals give the Nashville noir of Once Lovers and Bury It a creepy David Lynchian edge, while Harold Arlen’s Paper Moon gets reinvented as edgy urban country. And the jaunty closing track, Aloha Bobby and Rose, is the best song here. It’s got all the elements of a classic retro pop hit: a singalong, anthemic, country-tinged tune, and just enough imagery to keep the listener on pins and needles waiting to find out how this particular story of a drunken evening ends. When Thorpe finally cuts loose at the end, the impact is viscerally chilling.

The vocals on several numbers here are transcendent. On What Love Is (no relation to the Dead Boys classic), she’s torchy, and tender, and spine-tingling against Matt Trowbridge’s tersely echoey Fender Rhodes electric piano and Rob Jost’s slinky, soaring bass. It’s hard to resist Thorpe’s logic here: “”Try to believe in the dreams that you’re dreaming, that’s how they come true.” The country-tinged Amber pairs sultry, crystalline vocals with gentle ukulele from Craig Chesler, while Catching the Light builds from a wintry backdrop to a towering crescendo. When Thorpe asserts that “I would walk until sunrise if you needed me to,” she owns it: it’s impossible to believe otherwise. And Goodbye, with its oldtime swing sophistication, wouldn’t be out of place in the Moonlighters catalog.

And not everything here is all white-knuckle intense,either. Waking up in Brooklyn dares a guy to walk away from his daily drudgery, while Hey Hey Hey is an irresistibly cajoling, playful, indelibly New York song – Thorpe wants some fun, maybe a walk up Museum Mile and then a stop for biscuits and tea and she won’t accept no for an answer! What else is there to say about this artist that hasn’t been said already: tremendous singer, tremendous material, someone you should get to know if you haven’t already.