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Noir Rocker Tom Warnick’s Side Effects Could Be His Best Album

Isn’t it validating when an artist you’ve followed for ten years or longer puts out a new album – and it turns out to be the best thing they’ve ever done? You could make that case for Tom Warnick‘s latest release, Side Effects, streaming at Spotify. Warnick is a brilliant tunesmith, an evocative crooner, a devously witty keyboardist and has a deep back catalog of sardonic, often noir-tinged songs that goes back to the late 90s. In New York noir cirlees, he’s iconic. And there was a time that it wasn’t certain that he’d make it as far as as 2015. But a couple of well-documented brushes with the grim reaper didn’t stop him from pretty much picking up where he left off as one of this city’s most reliably entertaining performers.

The big news about this album is that Warnick’s band the World’s Fair – whom he equates here to “a box of bent baseball cards” – have a new secret weapon. Alto saxophonist Jason Reese has been more or less a fulltime member for the last few years, but this is the album where he finally gets to go front and center and he makes the absolute most of it: he can be balmy and carefree, or murderously smoky. When the band gets noir here – and they do that a lot – it’s Reese who’s usually the main culprit. They open with a revamped older tune, the wry, pun-infused title track, reinvented as a swinging soul number with Reese adding a break that brings to mind the Sonny Rollins solo on the Stones’ Waiting on a Friend.

Just when you think Doing My Time is a blithely stomping rockabilly-flavored romp, Warnick hits a swirly series of minor chords on the organ, underscoring the song’s existential unease. City of Women, one of Warnick’s signature songs and a big crowd-pleaser, pairs lead guitarist Ross Bonadonna’s snarling, surfy leads with Reese’s blue-flame riffage: it’s more retro noir than the horror-surf version the band used to roll out as an encore a couple of years back.

Long Way from Home is a surreal, Jim Jarmusch-esque travelogue set to loping C&W: “I will push open the emergency door, do you think it will make a sound?” Warnick asks snidely, “Excuse us while we disappear far from this burial ground.”

I’m a Stranger Here first took shape as a pulsing new wave tune, but it’s a swinging, bitterly reminiscent noir number here, Reese’s shadowy lines over Warnick’s eerily tiptoeing piano, with contrasting guitar jangle and wail from Bonadonna and John Sharples. As good as the rest of the album is, this one’s the high point, musically speaking at least. .

Lost in Place is another gem, an elegantly savage Elvis Costello-esque look back at navigating the tortuous corridors of high school, bassist Scott Anthony choosing his spots and hitting a few choice high notes. The band goes back to the noir for Old Man Blues, its moody reggae-tinged groove bringing to mind the Specials’ Ghost Town. In its first incarnation, Cop Car was a pretty straight-up blues; here, Warnick’s blackly amusing tale of a highway pot bust gets the full Peter Gunne treatment with a honking blue-smoke sax chart and eerily watery guitar that gives way to a jagged 70’s arenarock solo from Bonadonna.

The album ends on an unexpectedly upbeat note with the baroque pop ballad Fly Away and its surreal push-pull between teenage anomie and blissed-out ambience, and then the Tex-Mex bounce of Falling in Love Again. Look for this one somewhere on the best albums of 2015 page here in December assuming we get that far.

Tom Warnick Brings His Ominous Noir Sounds and Wry Black Humor to Otto’s

One of the reasons why Tom Warnick shows are always worth checking out is that he’s constantly reinventing his songs. His most recent New York show, at Freddy’s last month, recast about half the setlist. Meaning that the singer-keyboardist can take the exact same material and completely flip the script. For example, Side Effects – as in, “I’m experiencing all your side effects, won’t you give ’em all to me” – used to be a boisterous newgrass song, as you might expect with a tune about a guy who won’t take no for an answer. But this time out, the band completely redid it, as a swing tune. Alto saxophonist Jason Reese, who’s been a charter member of this group for a long time, is getting more and more time in the spotlight and making the most of it. You probably wouldn’t expect a sax player to take the music in as noir a direction as Warnick has returned to lately, but it’s happened. Reese slunk and slowly smoked and built ominous ambience through I’m a Stranger Here, which used to be an upbeat, cynical new wave-flavored tune but is now a minor-key circus rock number. And he teamed with Warnick for some disturbing chromatics through Cop Car, a cruelly funny tale of a highway pot bust that used to be a pretty straight-up blues but has been taken deep into Tom Waits territory without seeming cliched and imitative.

Likewise, the band took Lost in Place, which used to be total new wave, straight out of 1981, and gave it more of a swaying janglerock feel. And all this reinvention works because this crew – Warnick on piano and organ, Reese on sax, John Sharples and Ross Bonadonna on guitars, Scott Anthony on bass and the guy who plays drums under the pseudonym of Jacques Strappe in hilarious faux-French rockers Les Sans Culottes – can turn on a dime and play pretty much anything. Deep Jamaican roots reggae? That’s what the slow, grimly funny Old Man Blues is now. The grimmest number of the night was actually set to its most lighthearted tune, an oldschool country-folk sway – but maybe that was meant to reinforce a sense of irony. Warnick got a lot of flash going with his righthand organ lines as Bonadonna mined a satirical, over-the-top arenarock floridness on the reggae tune, Sharples switching between lingering chords and ominous chromatics. They finally relented to the crowd, who’d been pleading for 40 People, Warnick’s early-zeros classic about the increasing difficulty of even a good band (or for that matter a really bad one) getting booked into a decent New York gig at a decent hour on a decent day. And they slowed down City of Women – which used to be a lickety-split horror surf number – and in the process maxed out its goosebump-inducing triumph. They’re at Otto’s this Saturday, April 18 at 8, as good a time and place as any to find out what  Warnick will be up to next. You can count on it being different than what he did at Freddy’s.

A Rare Live Gig in August Spawns Two Auspicious October Shows

Was drummer/impresario John Sharples‘ excellent, rare gig as a bandleader back in August responsible for two of this weekend’s most enticing shows? Maybe yes, maybe no. In the case of the show tomorrow night, Oct 24 at Freddy’s, definitely yes, since he’s booked it. It’s an eclectic lineup starting at 9 with a similarly rare performance by the jangly, edgy band that songwriter Paula Carino made a name for herself with back in the late 90s, Regular Einstein. After that there’ll be short sets by Psychic Lines and guitarist Tim Simmonds’ Ex Extract project followed at 11 by Calm King, which is members of Beefheart cover band Admiral Porkbrain playing “improvisational postpunk chamber pop.”

And an artist Sharples drew on for her nuanced but powerful, torchy voice at that August show, Americana songwriter Robin Aigner, plays the album release show for her long-awaited new album of historically-infused oldtimey songs and chamber pop at Barbes this Saturday, Oct 26 at 8 on a great bill (this one not booked by Sharples) that starts with oldtime blues guitar monster Mamie Minch at 6 and continues at 10 with harmony-driven noir cumbia and bolero band Las Rubias Del Norte at 10.

What was the August show like? Drummers have deep address books since the good ones play with a ton of people, and Sharples is no exception. This particular night started with crystalline-voiced songwriter Rebecca Turner opening solo with a wryly epic, brooding contemplation of family tensions. Then she brought up her band – including John Pinamonti on lead guitar and studio mastering legend Scott Anthony on bass – for terse, quietly bristling versions of older material like The Way She Is now and newer songs including the metaphorical Cassandra and The Cat That Can Be Alone. She and the band closed with Brooklyn Is So Big, which ten years ago was a triumphant shout-out to the borough’s musical riches and now seems more like an obituary.

Sharples played both six and twelve-string guitar out in front of a band that included Ross Bonadonna on guitar and Tom Pope on drums, mixing up material from the cult classic 2004 I Can Explain Everything album along with unexpected treats like the tongue-in-cheek, metrically Carino favorite Robots Helping Robots and a blistering take of Brooklyn, by Celtic punk band Box of Crayons.

But the best song of the night was a straight-up janglerock version of Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here, the lushness and overtones of the twelve-string providing some of the original’s angst-fueled grandeur. Or it might have been the ominously swaying version of Tom Warnick’s noir blues anthem The Impostor. Or for that matter, Dylan’s Positively 4th Street reinvented as tightly wound janglerock. Or the lusciously jangling Matt Keating cover, Mind’s Eye, with Aigner adding her plaintive harmonies. It was one of those kind of shows.

The night wound up with a catchy solo set by guitarist/frontman Tim Reedy, of indie rockers Electric Engine. Nobody evokes the mid-90s anthemic REM sound like that band, and it was cool to hear Reedy’s witty lyrics and frequent baseball references without the ring of the amps behind him.

A Typically Urbane, Incisively Lyrical New Album from the Larch

The Larch have been one of New York’s catchiest, most lyrically acerbic bands for a long time. Their 2012 album Days to the West blended new wave and psychedelia with a witheringly cynical Costelloesque lyrical edge. The one before that, Larix Americana – written mostly at the tail end of the Bush regime – set frontman/guitarist Ian Roure’s corrosive, politically charged commentary to hypnotic, guitar-fueled paisley underground rock. Lately the band seems to be on hiatus, but they have an excellent new ep, In Transit, picking up where the last album left off and streaming at Bandcamp.

The first track, Science & Charity – whose title the band nicked from a Picasso painting – assesses the pros and cons of space-age advances over keyboardist Liza Roure’s swooshy synth and Ross Bonadonna’s rising bassline, drummer Tom Pope negotiating its tricky syncopation. A jet-engine guitar solo takes it echoing out.

Welcome to the Institute alternates between hard funk and mid-80s Costello, a sardonic narrative told from the point of view of a pitchman for an online reputation repair service. Liza’s woozily processed backing vocals add an aptly tacky, techy touch, Bonadonna’s slithery lines echoing Bruce Thomas, the guitar again taking it out with a lickety-split, spiraling solo (Ian is the rare hotshot lead player who doesn’t waste notes).

Saturn’s in Transit, the catchiest and most Costelloesque tune here, seems to be one of those metaphorically charged workday anomie narratives that Ian writes so well. The jangliest track is the similarly metaphorical, nonchalantly ominous Mr. Winters, sort of a mashup of Squeeze and lyrical powerpop legends Skooshny – Ian’s voice often brings to mind that band’s frontman, Mark Breyer.

The backbeat Britpop tune Images of Xmas contemplates a deceptively comfortable litany of holiday gatherings and overindulgences. There’s also a hard-charging punk-pop bonus track. The Larch may be on the shelf for now, but the Roures continue with their duo project, Tracy Island, wherein they mix works in progress with favorites from the Larch and Liza and the Wonderwheels catalogs. They’re playing tomorrow, Oct 15, at 8 PM at Bowery Electric for an $8 cover and it’s a good bet some of these songs will be on the bill.

The Larch Rocks Bowery Electric

The Larch were working an 80s Britrock vein fifteen years before the recent wave of Smiths and New Order wannabes infested Bushwick. Thursday night at Bowery Electric, the four-piece Brooklyn band was at the top of their game – that they’ve never sounded better in their practically fifteen-year existence speaks to the quality of the songwriting as well as the musicianship. Frontman/guitarist Ian Roure’s voice has taken on a flinty resonance in the years since they were putting out vinyl singles around the turn of the century. It was good to hear keyboardist Liza Roure’s crystalline, bell-like voice blend with her husband’s, adding to the band’s increasingly otherworldly allure. They gave several of the songs eerie, cascading, sometimes horror-tinged intros and outros, bassist Ross Bonadonna’s nimble, growling, melodic lines soaring over Tom Pope’s artfully tumbling drums.

The set mixed songs from throughout their career with a lot of nonchalantly brilliant new material. They opened with a bouncy version of an early song, Poppy Day, with its wry Chris Difford-style marching bounce, following with In the Name of…, with its funky Moods for Moderns bass hooks and cynical view of religious zealotry of every kind. After the syncopatedly romping, coldly metaphorical Monkey Happy Hour, they debuted the first of the new songs, Saturn in Transit, the night’s most anthemic number. Apparently good things happen when this guy shows up – but there seems to be a catch.

Another new one, Science and Charity – whose title the band nicked from a Picasso painting – contrasted Liza’s buoyantly swirly keys against a refrain of “where did the future go.” As Burt Bacharach covers go, their take of My Little Red Book had the same freshing bite as the Stranglers’ version of Walk on By – and a cruel circus motif. Another brand-new one, Welcome to the Institute made fun of internet spin doctoring, with some LOL funny backing vocals from Liza and then finally one of Ian’s signature spiraling, Richard Lloyd-esque solos

Days to the West, the title track to their excellent 2012 album, made a stark contrast, a Celtic-hued, grimly expectant emigrant’s tale. They picked it up again with the new Images of Xmas, a distinctly British season-end song for drinkers, then the scathing Bishop’s Chair, possibly the only song to make the connection between ridiculous medieval religious pomp and mass media bombardment. They closed their set with the even more caustic Tracking Tina and its savage Frankie Valli references, a sarcastic tale of anxious helicopter parents who make the NSA seem innocuous by comparison. The crowd screamed for more, so they gave them the swirly, snide Midweek Nebula, ending with a long guitar solo that went from searing to appropriately nebulous. The Larch have made Freddy’s their home base in recent years; watch this space for upcoming gigs and maybe a new album if we’re lucky.

Reliving October

Who in New York would want to relive October, 2012? Actually, if you can make the big, stormy elephant in the room disappear, it wasn’t such a bad month – and there were plenty of good shows happening, right up until a couple of days before the hurricane. This month’s account is part of an ongoing feature on concerts that for various reasons escaped front-page coverage here. Although most of the artists involved have already gotten plenty of space here before, it wouldn’t make sense to neglect what they’re doing because in one way or another, it’s important.

Early in the month on a deliciously cool Saturday, Tom Warnick & the World’s Fair played their usual careening mix of haunted, noir rock and contrastingly sunny oldschool soul songs at a gig at Freddy’s in Brooklyn’s south slope. Warnick is a keyboardist; he stands deadpan, sometimes with just the hint of a smirk and intones surreal, historically-inspired lyrics while the band motors behind him. This particular version had the blazing guitars of both Ross Bonadonna and John Sharples plus tenor sax and a rhythm section. Other than the utterly blissful soul sway of My Troubles All Fall Apart, the songs had a persistent unease. Catchy as the pulsing new wave of I’m a Stranger Here and the slower but equally catchy Lost in Place were, they both spoke to youthful alienation. Likewise, The Great Calamity didn’t shy away from potential disaster – Warnick has walked away from several in his life – and delivered a persistent defiance.

Other songs were considerably darker and ran the gamut from reggae, to bluegrass, to an a-cappella cover of an old chain gang song from the 30s. Cop Car, a stomping blues tune about a stoner being tailed by the po-po, had the guitars gleefully sirening in unison on the bridge – yikes! A Little Space worked a leering Tom Waits vibe, while Keep Me Movin’ rose and fell with a moody, Doorsy-y ambience. This time out, the big hit was The Impostor, with its chromatically-fueled menace and macabre crescendo on the chorus. As strange a segue as these guys made with the opening act, Beefheart cover band Admiral Porkbrain, they kept the surreal energy going.

Onetime Dog Show frontman J. O’Brien has hardly been idle since the breakup of the band late in the zeros. His Vibedeck page has tons of name-your-price goodies, including both new songs and newly stripped down, mostly acoustic versions of Dog Show classics. He also has a monthly gig at Zirzamin, Manhattan’s newest and most exclusive venue for A-list songwriters. His October show featured a lot of his more pensive, darker material, including a welcome return of the offhandedly savage, bitter kiss-off ballad All About Wrong, as well as fueling  pre-election unease with the politically-charged Black Eye and Hold Me Down. His November show was more upbeat and drew more heavily on his more recent songs, notably Cottonmouth, a hilariously snide litany of characters on the train between Manhattan and south Brooklyn. He’ll be back at Zirzamin, solo on twelve-string guitar, on Dec 10 at 7.

Spanking Charlene, leaders of the scene at the late, lamented Lakeside Lounge, made a rare trip uptown to the Ding Dong Lounge for frontwoman Charlene McPherson’s birthday. The band’s new rhythm section – Patti Rothberg’s bass player and Drina Seay’s drummer – gave them extra punch and kick, and semi-permanent lead guitarist Eric Ambel got plenty of opportunities to sear and burn with a noisy, bluesy menace. Their long set mixed in a few covers along with many of the roaring Americana-punk songs on their latest album Where Are the Freaks – notably the stomping, sludgy title track, inspired by a drunken walk through increasingly yuppified Stuyvestant Town. McPherson wailed with her usual high voltage against the squall of a huge tenor saxophonist who looked like he’d just come in from Giants practice, as the band made their way through the sarcastic crash and roar of You Suck, Secrets, Tie Me Up and Stupid Me. As the show wound up, they made the connection between Black Sabbath and the Sonics and then a version of Heat Wave that owed more to the Martha Reeves original than the Jam. Spanking Charlene’s next show is on the road, on Dec 8 at the Record Collector in Bordentown, NJ.

A day before that, Niall Connolly played the weekly acoustic series at the American Folk Art Museum a few blocks north of Lincoln Center. He’s a band guy at heart and writes like it, buildling to anthemic choruses and leaving plenty of space for guitar breaks and other interesting stuff. In an all-too-brief set, he alternated between gloomily sardonic, spare, fingerpicked reflections on relationship dysfunction, and more upbeat, politically-fueled acoustic rock. Connolly is Irish by birth and not a fan of the post-9/11 American police state, and has plenty to say about it that’s both amusing and insightful. Connolly plays a LOT of shows; he’s at Caffe Vivaldi tomorrow night at midnight and then on Tuesday (officially, early Wednesday) at one in the morning at the Red Lion on Bleecker Street, where the tourists might have actually cleared out by then.

Another Great Album by the Larch

For more than a decade, the Larch have been making first-class British rock in Brooklyn. Frontman/guitarist Ian Roure’s status as an expat has a lot to do with that. Like Squeeze, or Elvis Costello – an artist he’s often compared to – Roure writes sardonically about dysfunctional office scenarios, schizos with cellphones and post-9/11 American fascism to rival any scheme Margaret Thatcher ever devised. After a flirtation with sci-fi rock on 2009’s Gravity Rocks, Roure’s worldview has become bleaker, his cynicism deeper. His songwriting hit a high point with Larix Americana, a masterpiece of lyrical New York underground rock, released just over a couple of years ago. Where that album took a richly successful plunge into psychedelic rock, the band’s new album Days to the West blends new wave and psychedelia, Roure’s withering lyricism as acerbic as ever. If Larix Americana was their Argybargy, you could call this their West Side Story, a richly eclectic and powerful followup to a classic.

The new wave pulse of Tons of Time sets the tone: “We don’t know what we’re going for, but it’s not here,” Roure sings with a gentle insistence: it’s a knowing anthem for any would-be rockers “watching the game you’re not sure you can win…rock criticism with your pickle and cheese, living the life but you’re feeling the squeeze.” But there’s hope to ” meet the word outside this penny market town.” Roure takes a long, rippling, lickety-split wah guitar solo out.

Monkey Happy Hour makes a slightly less caustic companion piece to LJ Murphy’s Happy Hour, a scenario that equates fratboy grotesquerie with post-office overindulgence, set to a terse riff that hits the chorus hard with a nice biting change. Already Lost Tomorrow is just as sardonic: like much of the Larch’s catalog, it could be just a bitter, brooding tale of a guy grabbing for all he can, or it could be a metaphor for disingenuous yuppie consumption, Liza Roure’s trebly organ mingling with a growling web of guitar and Ross Bonadonna’s melodic spiral-staircase bassline. Similarly, the title track, a lushly orchestrated, distantly Scottish-flavored 6/8 ballad, could simply be a reminiscence of watching a comet, or a metaphor for something far greater.

Honey Bee works a catchy, Kinks-influenced verse, an upbeat look at “balancing the nectar and the sting.” With its hypnotic space-rock intro, outro and sizzling lead guitar, Midweek Nebula looks at a memorably twisted bunch of office weirdos from the other end of the telescope, a milieu that gets revisited even more caustically with Second Face, a warmly Costelloish new wave pop tune that grimly ponders the loss of an office alliance. And The Bishop’s Chair, with its synthesized bells and tongue-in-cheek backing vocals, pokes fun at how “before you know, those old beliefs are stretched beyond repair.” This particular bishop may think all eyes are on him, but they’re not. The album ends with a darkly ornate, keyboard-driven, late 60s style psychedelic Britfolk anthem, and a return to the more 80s-flavored psych-pop that has been the band’s stock in trade throughout their career. Not a single miss on this album: another winner from a group that deserves to be much bettter known than they are.

Friday Night Hurricane Party at Barbes

Friday night was a hurricane party. Everybody in town was out because by Saturday noon they’d be more or less housebound, since the subway was shutting down in anticipation of what reasonably-minded New Yorkers expected – a big rainstorm, nothing this city hasn’t seen before or won’t see again. It wasn’t exactly 1821 or 1938, the two most recent years that hurricanes hit the city. In a fortuitous if predictable stroke of fate, New York’s best music venue, Barbes, had a characteristically excellent triplebill.

Mamie Minch opened, a late addition to the bill. It would have been nice to have seen the eclectically oldtimey Roulette Sisters’ charismatic frontwoman/guitarist – she always puts on a good show. Greta Gertler was next. This time out the unpredictable pianist and art-rock songwriter had an acoustic rhythm section and a backup singer who doubled on glockenspiel when she wasn’t artfully switching between high and low harmonies. The set was a mix of greatest hits and new songs from her lush chamber-pop project the Universal Thump. She did the poignant, regretful 6/8 ballad Damien, the massive top 40 hit that should have been, early on. Anticipating a little rain, she segued from the aptly pensive Wrist Slasher into the bustling Bergen Street, a vivid Brooklyn thunderstorm scenario from her ragtime-flavored 2008 album Edible Restaurant album. The new songs included a gently majestic ballad (Gertler told the crowd that she was edging further and further toward “theatre music”) and a somewhat Peter Gabriel-esque Universal Thump anthem lit up by drummer Adam Gold’s hypnotically swirling cymbals and joyously thunderous, symphonic drumming.

“Party band” probably wouldn’t be the first way you might consider categorizing Piñataland. But that’s what they were. On their new album Hymns for the Dreadful Night, the chamber pop band’s rhythm section really amps it up – interestingly, this time out, drummer Bill Gerstel and bassist Ross Bonadonna kept the groove more low-key, sometimes gracefully ornate, probably just as well considering that they were playing Barbes. Violinist Deni Bonet stole the show with her fiery, gypsy and celtic-flavored lines when she wasn’t building an orchestral swirl with the guest accordionist, while bandleaders Dave Wechsler and Doug Stone joined voices vigorously with Robin Aigner (who was making it her second night in a row here).

They opened with a big-sky country waltz by Wechsler, got quiet and gospelly on the new album’s title track before a joyous version of the Irish rock tune Island of Godless Men, told from the point of view of a pre-Revolutionary War era religious zealot, Bonet bringing an especially exuberant edge to the closing reel. The gypsy-rock numbers were the high point of the show, especially the bitter, defiant Death of Silas Deane, a tribute to another Revolutionary era figure who was instrumental in generating support for his new nation, then took a dramatic and tragic fall from grace. The single most gripping moment was on the set’s weirdest song, Wechsler’s elegant country-gospel piano set against the unlikely backdrop of a Roswell incident engineered by the KGB, where the aliens are actually surgically modified Russian children. That one was told from the point of view of a real alien. They closed with another waltz, a country shuffle with another searing Bonet solo, a gypsy rocker about a 19th century anti-gentrification protestor of sorts, and the inexplicable but irresistibly catchy Border Guard, Aigner sliding and slinking through the melody Kitty Wells style.