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Serena Jost Takes Flight with a Brilliant New Album

Multi-instrumentalist Serena Jost’s songs are so direct and easy to sing along to that they seem to be perfectly clear, but they’re anything but. They draw you in with their calm allure and then hit you upside the head when you least expect it. Jost’s third album, A Bird Will Sing is due out on April 9; the former Rasputina cellist will feature a parade of her fellow New York elite players onstage in celebration of the album’s release at 9:30 PM at Joe’s Pub. Tickets are still available as of today; if art-rock is your thing, this is a must-see event. The whole album is streaming at Jost’s Bandcamp page.

On this one, Jost limits herself to cello and vocals, not such a bad idea considering the quality and diversity of the band: Julian Maile on guitars, Rob Jost on bass and horn, Rob DiPietro on drums, Thomas Bartlett on organ, backing vocals from Greta Gertler, Amanda Thorpe and Ursa Minor’s Michelle Casillas as well as producer Anton Fier making a cameo on bells. While Jost’s songs draw deeply on innumerable styles – 70s art-rock and Britfolk, classical, gospel, soul and even funk – she has a unique voice. Her vocals echo the deceptive translucence of her songwriting: clear, steady and minutely nuanced, they shine into the corners rather than the center. Likewise, her lyrics throw a succession of images at you, letting the listener connect the dots. It’s a mysterious and fun ride.

Jost makes a strong opening statement with the first track, Stay: that just cello and vocals would be enough to maintain interest pretty much speaks for what this album is all about. And despite the austerity of the tune, it’s optimistic: “All at once, right on top, winking is such fun,” she intones. It’s a prime example of the kind of lyrical hide-and-seek that will take place from here out.

Sweet Mystery sets deftly orchestrated powerpop over an irresistible Motown groove enhanced by the sepulchrally soaring beauty of Thorpe and Gertler on vocal harmonies. Maile’s shifting guitars – from powerpop crunch, to to a ringing 12-string bridge, to swirly psychedelics – are pure textural ear candy. By contrast, Blue Flowers takes a seductive pastoral theme and adds shadowy intensity, rising to a majestic, roaring chorus fueled by Maile’s slide guitar. Then the band takes it up jauntily with Fly, a jazz-tinged celebration of the joy of escape. But this particular escape isn’t the usual cathartic, angst-driven kind – Jost makes you feel the wind in your hair.

The title track is a balmy backbeat country song, sort of Patsy Cline gone to the conservatory, Jost’s low, subtle come-hither vocals and metaphorically-charged water imagery hitting some soaring highs as it winds out. Kiss the Wind, with its wryly muted exhilaration, echoes both Francoise Hardy’s psychedelic folk-pop, or Gruppo Sportivo in a rare bittersweet moment – or Lianne Smith. This carnival ride follows an upward arc fueled equally by excitement and dread.

Song without End sets sensual atmospherics and more water imagery over a terse, stately pulse, with a gorgeously intertwining, psychedelic outro. Nearly Beautiful, with its elegant, elegaic, baroque-tinged countermelodies, might be the album’s best song – it’s the most intense, and the subtext kills. “It’s nearly beautiful, I’m almost overjoyed,” Jost muses, letting the crushing sarcasm speak for itself.

The album’s lone cover is a terse, almost skeletal, absolutely accusatory version of the Doris Fisher classic Whispering Grass. Jost follows that with In the Garden, which evokes early ELO (or a late-period song by the Move), stark verse contrasting with lush chorus, riffs shifting artfully between instruments. The final track, Great Conclusions makes for a beautifully majestic coda, taking the album full circle with a restless unease and an ornate, snarling, guitar-fueled chorus that stops just this short of grand guignol. All the way through, the joy the band is having with these songs is visceral: a strong contender for best album of 2013.

Serena Jost Plays an Enchanting Set at Barbes

Thursday night at Barbes Serena Jost played a concert to get lost in. “Night time and shade were never the same,” she sang, carefully modulated, nuanced, allusively, early on. If there’s anybody who knows what the difference between night time and shade is, it’s Serena Jost. This time out she and her band brought both, along with some sun as well. Like most artists whose main axe is the cello, her background is classical music, and as you might expect, she adds a classic pop feel to that – her songs are always about the melody. Her sound is one that first gained traction in the early 70s, when Genesis was a theatrical psychedelic band, and ELO played raw, apocalyptic, amped-up orchestral suites. But Jost’s melodies, and her vocals, go for plaintivess and an occasionally allusive wit instead of theatricality or fullscale epic grandeur.

Much of the set was new material from her forthcoming album A Bird Will Sing; Jost played acoustic guitar on the majority of those songs. One early standout had a distantly Brazilian flavor, Strat player Julian Maile shadowing Jost ominously, bassist Rob Jost (no relation) rising to meet a crescendoing wave head-on, nimbly filling in the spaces with some playfully sliding riffs. Another new one with a long solo cello intro followed by a brief fanfare, and then a march, sounded like a less caustic Rasputina. Drummer Rob DiPietro gave Almost Nothing, a track from her most recent album Closer Than Far, some marvelously funereal drumming that matched perfectly with her soaring vocals, stopping just this short of anguish. She also brought up her recent tourmate Robin Aigner to sing defiantly brassy harmonies on several songs.

“What’s the first thing you think of when you think of a deli?” Somebody in the audience nailed it. “That’s right! The cat!” she grinned, approvingly, and launched into a song inspired by a deli trip (and the furry friend she found there) that sounded something like White Rabbit done as chamber pop. The rest of the show was deliciously all over the map. The forthcoming album’s title track, a countrypolitan ballad, had Maile doing a spot-on imitation of a pedal steel with some nuanced slide work. Another new one, a gorgeous art-pop tune, had him running a fat Steve Cropper-style Memphis lick against the song’s balmy melody. They reinvented Doris Fisher’s Whispering Grass as a slow, sinuous funk groove, and then went into late 60s ye-ye pop on the “one song that sounds like a cover but isn’t,” as the bandleader took care to note. And Great Conclusions, another new track, was genuinely majestic, its slowly galloping chorus kicking in with an apprehensive power that wouldn’t be out of place in the Grieg repertoire.

Another excellent band, the People’s Champs, were scheduled to follow, but it was time to go home and pack for the Great Evacuation on Saturday (just kidding about that – but no trip to Barbes is complete without a visit to the totally oldschool 24-hour donut shop up the block on 7th Ave.).