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No New Abnormal

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Cello Songstress Meaghan Burke Brings Her Uneasily Amusing Phantasmagoria to Joe’s Pub

Cello-rock songwriter Meaghan Burke’s new album Creature Comforts – streaming at Bandcamp – spans from stark art-rock, noir cabaret, and phantasmagorical theatre music to frequent departures into the avant garde. She has a cynical sense of humor and an often menacingly dramatic presence. She’s playing the album release show with a full band including the Rhythm Method String Quartet on May 11 at 9:30 PM at Joe’s Pub; cover is $16.

The album’s opening track, Methadone Friend begins torchy and sparse over a low drone and then goes wryly waltzing up to a menacing circus-rock peak:

I like your arms better than no arms
Prosthetic limbs are not where I’m from…
I like your voice better than no voice
Though silence is golden…

Hobo Doreen, a shout-out to a dangerous character who still manages to be “the prettiest bag lady I have ever seen, a wine-chuggin’, whiskey bottle-huggin’ diamond of disruption,” sounds like a mashup of Rachelle Garniez and the Roulette Sisters, fueled by Zeke Healy’s dobro.

Careening haphazardly around Simon Usaty’s circular banjo riff, Butterface paints a surreal, jazz-infused picture of a shallow trophy wife type. The bouncy, kinetic Spirit Animal is one of the album’s funnier numbers:

Don’t take me on a vision quest
I’m not your spirit animal
I think you’ve confused me with someone else
I think you’ve confused me with yourself…
I hope you find your heart amid the alligators and the lions

The buzzy, growling cello metal anthem Everyone Sleeps Alone in the Funhouse reminds of Rasputina at their loudest and most surreal:

I am a beached whale caught in the fish pond
Throw me a rat tail that I can hang on to….
It’s over it’s over we die

Yikes!

Wedding Song starts out aptly gloomy and atmospheric and then picks up with a strolling snarl:

You were the rusty nail in my head
You were a father figure…
I was a loaded gun with no trigger

Gowanus, a shout-out to infamously toxic Brooklyn canal waters, is the album’s most haunting track, awash in flickering cello against a plaintive string quartet backdrop. “Do you know how much I thought I loved you?” Burke rails. By contrast, When You´re Gone is the album’s torchiest number, Burke’s vocals channeling angst and cynicism.

Ornithology is not the Charlie Parker tune but an original, a sideways salute to a birder, Carlos Cordeiro’s elegantly spiraling clarinet contrasting with Burke’s shivery cello. There’s also a secret track, Pigeontoes, a twisted sideshow of a banjo tune: it could be a Carol Lipnik outtake. Lots of flavors, good jokes and storytelling on this strangely enticing album.

Another Creepy Winner from Bobtown

Among oldtime Americana bands, no one has better original songs than Bobtown. That’s probably because the band has four first-rate songwriters. Between them, percussionist/keyboardist Katherine Etzel, singer Jen McDearman, guitarist Karen Dahlstrom and bassist Fred Stesney blend their voices and instruments in a dark mix of bluegrass, country blues, gospel and other rustic Americana styles alongside new band member and brilliant guitarist/banjoist Alan Lee Backer. Their new album Trouble I Wrought also features cameos by drummers Dave Ciolino-Volano and Charlie Shaw and pedal steel player Mike Nolan along with M Shanghai String Band’s Philippa Thompson’s stark violin, and Dock Oscar Stern’s wry jawharp on one song. The new record expands on the eclectically haunting sound of their brilliant 2010 debut: this time out, they’re a little less stark, a little more lush but just as grim, fixated on death and despair. Consider this stuff antique folk songs for a new century.

On this album, Etzel is the main songwriter. Bobtown’s first album has a number of her songs written in the style of 19th century chain gang chants, and this album opens with one, Mama’s Got the Backbeat – which with different production, could be trip-hop, or gospel-flavored hip-hop. But that’s hardly the only style she works here. Skipping Stone is part banjo-fueled gospel bluegrass, part oldtime hokum blues with jaunty Roulette Sisters-style harmonies: “Today’s precious lover is tomorrow’s tasty bourguignon,” mmmm…

Etzel’s most lavish song here is Burn Your Building Down, a sepulchral grand guignol anthem with swirly violin, banjo and harmonies, building to a towering angst in the same vein as Vespertina. By contrast, her title track clocks in at barely two minutes, its rage semi-concealed in a soaring gospel arrangement over an organ drone. Resurrection Mary is a cheery, harmony-fueled Boswell Sisters-style swing tune…about a murder and a ghost. And Coalville, the lurid tale of a doomed couple now sharing a graveyard, reaches for a plush Nashville gothic ambience.

McDearman seems to specialize in sarcastically cheery, upbeat bluegrass songs. One Public Enemy would have been a perfect fit on one of Dolly Parton’s bluegrass albums (hey Dolly, there’s still time…). And McDearman maxes out the suspense factor in the otherwise very pretty Magilla Lee, as the listener grows closer and closer to finding out what happened as the poor girl waited to die. Dahlstrom contributes only one song here, Battle Creek, but it’s the best one on the album. With her searing gospel wail rising over an ominous minor-key backdrop, she paints a cruel portrait of a farm girl slowly losing it in early Rust Belt-era Michigan. Dahlstrom is no stranger to historically-informed songwriting: her Idaho-themed solo album, Gem State, was one of last year’s most intense releases in any style of music.

Not everything is so overtly bleak. Stesney’s two songs here each work a blackly humorous vein: Live Slow Die Old, which comes across as a mashup of Smog, Flugente and the Mountain Goats, and the irresistibly funny faux-gospel Flood Water Rising, possibly the only country gospel song to namecheck both L. Ron Hubbard and Herbert Hoover. There’s also a deadpan cover of Don’t Fear the Reaper, done as tersely creepy Nashville gothic, Backer’s banjo carrying the hook under the womens’ angelic harmonies, a terse banjo/accordion interlude in place of Buck Dharma’s shredding guitar solo. Like Bobtown’s previous album, this is one of the best of the year. The band’s next gig is Sept 21 at 9 PM on an excellent bill with eclectic alt-country siren Alana Amram & the Rough Gems at Union Hall for $10.

Today’s Batch of Goodies

Can you name a better NYC band than Spanglish Fly? There are a bunch of others who are just as fun: Chicha Libre, Rev. Vince Anderson and his funk band, the Roulette Sisters, LJ Murphy in his many incarnations, but is there anybody better? Check out their latest summery single and see for yourself. Spanglish Fly play bugalu, a wicked mix of Puerto Rican grooves and oldschool soul music that originated in the 60s when the Puerto Rican kids in Spanish Harlem started listening to soul music. Meanwhile, the black kids uptown were listening to Puerto Rican music – it was one of those gorgeous melting-pot moments that could have only happened here. They’re playing the release show for their new single on Feb 16 at Zebulon starting at around 9. The A-side, Me Gusta Mi Bicliceta has frontwoman Erica Ramos wailing like never before. The B-side, The Po-Po is absolutely killer, a sarcastic plena soul groove that explores a universal NYC phenomenon: kids getting busted for open containers by cops desperate to make their “quality of life” arrest quotas. Check out that cool baritone sax! Both songs are streaming here; the vinyl – this stuff is pure analog! – will be out on Electric Cowbell Records.

Wave Sleep Wave – the latest project from the Blam’s Jerry Adler – has a new free download, Hey What – hypnotic, jangly reverby Britrock that wouldn’t be out of place on Wire’s 154 record. A full album is scheduled for next month.

Another free download worth checking out is the Feeling Anxious PR Valentine compilation. Not everything here is worth uploading, but the good stuff is choice: Tatiana Kochkareva’s bouncy retro psychedelic pop, Hannah vs. the Many’s assaultive, hyper-literate noir cabaret and Bryan Dunn’s super-sly country drinking song, Flowers, an anti-Valentine song if there ever was one.

And in case you missed Either/Orchestra’s transcendent three-hour marathon show of mostly brand-new Ethiopian-flavored jazz at the New School last November, it’ll be airing on WGBO’s Jazz Set program on Feb 19 at 6 PM and then on Feb 22 at 6:30. Listening back to a recording of the show, it’s amazing: an eclectic new suite by bandleader Russ Gershon plus several Ethiopian pieces never played outside Ethiopia, performed for probably the first time since the 60s or early 70s.

The 50 Best Albums of 2011

Randi Russo started hinting that she might go in a psychedelic direction ever since her 2001 noise-rock masterpiece, Solar Bipolar. With its swirling production, jaggedly assaultive guitars, sharply literate lyrics and rugged individualism, her latest one Fragile Animal tops the list in 2011. It’s got a roaring Middle Eastern epic, a long, hypnotic raga-rock interlude, jaunty Beatlesque psych-pop, all with the tunefulness and resolute defiance that have been her signature since her debut album in 2000. There’s literally not a single second-rate song on this album.

The #2 spot goes to another artist who first broke out right around that time. Jenifer Jackson’s new The Day Happiness Found Me is her most intimate, terse album so far, a blend of hypnotic tropical grooves, sultry oldschool soul and vintage country, and she’s never sung with more understated power. It’s a quiet knockout.

#3 doesn’t wait to get to the point: the Oxygen Ponies’ third album, Exit Wounds is a vitriolic, lyrical masterpiece of post-Velvets songwriting. Frontman/songwriter Paul Megna pillories a generation of self-absorbed, entitled brats in these bitter, hypnotically catchy, meticulously arranged art-rock songs.

The rest of the list is only the tip of the iceberg. For the sake of brevity – if you buy the suggestion that a list of fifty albums could possibly be brief – this one cuts off at that number. Because New York Music Daily is basically a rock blog, there’s no jazz or classical on this list to speak of (for an intriguing list of the year’s 25 best jazz albums, visit NYMD’s sister blog, Lucid Culture). And since there were probably over a million albums released worldwide this past year, you shouldn’t read anything into whether an album might be rated #1 or #50 – if it’s good enough to be anywhere on this list, it’s got to be pretty incredible.

4. Mary Lee Kortes – Songs from the Beulah Rowley Songbook ep. The Mary Lee’s Corvette frontwoman came up with a fictitious alter ego from the 1930s and 40s who wrote in as many diverse, harrowing, literate styles – this is her “long lost debut.”

5. Roulette Sisters – Introducing the Roulette Sisters. This is actually the charismatic oldtimey quartet’s second album: Mamie Minch, Meg Reichardt, Karen Waltuch and Megan Burleyson romp through a characteristically entertaining, innuendo-driven mix of oldtime blues, country and novelty songs.

6. Ansambl Mastika – Songs & Dances for Life Nonstop. The Brooklyn Balkan uproar may not be playing as many shows lately, with their frontman concentrating on Raya Brass Band, but this scorching mix of every style from the old Ottoman empire is as exhilarating as gypsy music can possibly get – Gogol Bordello, watch out.

7. Beninghove’s Hangmen – debut album. Noir soundtrack music from a bunch of guys with jazz chops, punk attitude and off-the-scale raw intensity: best debut album of 2011 by a longshot.

8. Steve Wynn – Northern Aggression. The legendary noir rocker adds a little swirly dreampop to his noisy guitar duels and haunting portaits of life among the down-and-out.

9. Spottiswoode – Wild Goosechase Expedition. The literate art-rocker’s critique of the perils of life during wartime is spot-on and amusing as well. This sprawling, psychedelic, Beatlesque effort is a career best, and the band is scorching.

10. Ward White – Done with the Talking Cure. The literate powerpop tunesmith keeps putting out snarky, wickedly catchy albums – in a year where Elvis Costello didn’t put out any, this makes a good substitute

11. Trio Tritticali – Issue #1.Violinist Helen Yee, violist Leanne Darling and cellist Loren Dempster’s original mix of Asian, Middle Eastern and tropical themes is as intense and intricately interwoven as it is ambitious.

12. Hazmat Modine – Cicada. The minor-key blues/reggae/klezmer psychedelic outfit’s third album might be their strongest and most eclectic to date, with input from Gangbe Brass Band and Natalie Merchant.

13. Karen Dahlstrom – Gem State. The Bobtown multi-instrumentalist and songwriter, an Idaho native, reached back for a haunting, intense late-1800s western Americana vibe on these evocative original songs.

14. The Threeds Oboe Trio – Unraveled. Three oboes (and sometimes French horn) playing tongue-in-cheek new arrangements of Michael Jackson, the Doors, Stevie Wonder, Piazzolla and Little Feat – this might be the funniest and most original album of the year.

15. Carol Lipnik -M.O.T.H. The queen of Coney Island phantasmagoria delivers her most lushly creepy album yet.

15. Dina Rudeen – The Common Splendor. The retro soul songwriter, backed by a first-class band, go deep into a late 60s vibe for these evocative three-minute portraits.

17. Evanescent – debut album. This is the Moonlighters’ Bliss Blood plus guitarist Al Street doing her torchiest, most noir songs ever. Free download.

18. Les Chauds Lapins – Amourettes. The charming, coy French chanson revivalists broaden their scope with this lushly orchestrated, unselfconsciously romantic collection.

19. Marianne Dissard – L’abandon. The French rocker (and documentary filmmaker) works every southwestern gothic angle she can find on this surprisingly diverse, snarling, intensely psychedelic new album.

20. Elisa Flynn – 19th Century Songs. Like Karen Dahlstrom (#13 above), Flynn has a great eye for images, an amazing voice and an ear for a great tune – this album is considerably more diverse, and just as dark.

21. Dollshot – debut album. Brother/sister Noah and Rosalie Kaplan (tenor sax and voice) lead this creepy, improvisational group, putting a sometimes devious, sometimes twisted new spin on classical art-songs.

22. The Universal Thump – Chapter Two. Keyboard goddess Greta Gertler’s lush art-rock band’s second ep in a year is as richly tuneful, playfully quirky and and anthemic as their first one.

23. Mark Sinnis – The Undertaker in My Rearview Mirror. The baritone crooner who fronts Ninth House offers his most morbid, rustic Nashville gothic release to date.

24. Edward Rogers – Porcelain. The British expat tunesmith has never been more eclectic, more acerbic or more relevant throughout this mix of retro glam, art-rock and new wave with his amazing band.

25. Hungrytown – Any Forgotten Thing. The duo of Rebecca Hall and Ken Anderson add a deliciously off-kilter psychedelic folk edge to Hall’s dark, brooding songs.

26. Frankenpine – The Crooked Mountain. The New York bluegrass band push the envelope with a mix of upbeat original numbers and creepy ballads as well as a detour into gypsy jazz.

27. Robin O’Brien – The Empty Bowl. Her first album of new songs since the 90s, the dark soul/folk/rock chanteuse is at the absolute peak of her unpredictable power.

28. Pinataland – Hymns for the Dreadful Night. The best album to date by the Brooklyn “historical orchestrette,” a lavishly orchestrated mix of Americana and rock with a biting and spot-on historical edge.

29. Aunt Ange – Olga Walks Away. A concept album about an acid trip, straight out of the 60s, with a creepy gypsy punk edge to match – one of the year’s most original releases.

30. Rahim AlHaj – Little Earth. A protege of legendary oud player Munir Bashir, AlHaj spans the globe with styles from Iraq, Egypt and the Appalachians, backed by a global supporting cast.

31. A Hawk & a Hacksaw – Cervantine. A Neutral Milk Hotel spinoff (how many of those are there, about fifty?), these folks do rustic, intense gypsy romps as well as anyone else. Their show last summer at the Bell House was killer.

32. On – Box of Costumes. Hard to believe that there are only two guys – a guitarist/singer and drummer/keyboardist – in this dark, artsy Israeli rock band.

33. The Jolly Boys – Great Expectations. The legendary Jamaican mento band went out on a high note with this clever mix of pop and punk covers, their first release since the 70s.

34. Trio Joubran – Asfar. The three Palestinian oud-playing brothers turn in a haunting, austere, elegaic suite of instrumentals with flamenco tinges.

35. Marissa Nadler – 5th album. The mistily captivating dark acoustic rock chanteuse goes into Americana further than ever before, with excellent results.

36. Shusmo – Mumtastic. Palestinian buzuq player Tareq Abboushi’s funky, psychedelic Middle Eastern/jazz/rock unit is catchy and politically spot-on throughout this diverse debut album.

37. Loga Ramin Torkian – Mehraab. The Iraqi/Canadian multi-instrumentalist takes a hauntingly successful trip into hypnotic dreampop/electronic territory.

38. American Modern Ensemble – Star Crossing: Music of Robert Paterson. All together, this suite of new instrumentals – mostly for flutes and percussion – is intensely cinematic and totally noir.

39. See-I – debut album. The Washington, DC roots reggae act mix tons of woozy dub and a little dancehall into their trippy rootsy grooves.

40. Pistolera – El Desierto y la Ciudad. Divided into a bustling city side and hypnotic, apprehensively dark desert side, the New York-based janglerockers explore the immigrant experience with typically hard-hitting intensity.

41. Terakaft – Ishumar. The Malian desert blues band deliver their hardest-rocking collection of grooves ever.

42. The Mast – Wild Poppies. Singer/guitarist Haale and virtuoso percussionist Matt Kilmer team up for a wary, psychedelic mix of indie rock with Middle Eastern tinges and an uncompromising lyrical intensity.

43. Aram Bajakian’s Kef – debut album. Lou Reed’s lead guitarist, when he’s not on the road, leads this intriguing electic band who play new verisons of classic Armenian themes.

44. Taj Weekes & Adowa – Waterlogged Soul Kitchen. The roots reggae star is his usual politically-charged self on this mix of warm grooves and ferociously insightful anthems.

45. The Rudie Crew – This Is Skragga. Always a great live band, these ska party monsters proved they can do it in the studio too with this one.

46. The Funk Ark – From the Rooftops. Afrobeat from Washington, DC: slinky latin vamps, ferocious Ethiopian themes and good-natured, oldschool funk.

47. CSC Funk Band – Things Are Getting Too Casual. The Brooklyn psychedelic funk band mix Afrobeat and Celtic sounds into their danceable blend. Free download.

48. Christopher O’Riley & Matt Haimovitz – Shuffle Listen Repeat. This is pianist O’Riley’s third album of classical-style piano versions of rock songs; this time, he found his noir muse in the music of Hitchcock film composer Bernard Herrmann.

49. Karikatura – Departures. Latin grooves, flamenco guitar, gypsy tunes, an amazing horn section and smart, socially conscious lyrics, just as good on record as onstage.

50. The Rough Guide to Bellydance, 2nd Edition. The second one is even better than the first: it’s a mix of who’s who in levantine instrumentals over the last 30 years.

M Shanghai String Band Serenades Robin Hoffman’s Illustrations at the Jalopy

Great musical scenes usually get chronicled by their era’s most happening visual artists. Consider: Toulouse-Lautrec in the Paris cabarets in the 1800s; Bob Gruen in and around CBGB in the late 70s; and Robin Hoffman at the Jalopy in the late zeros and teens. If you’re a musician in the New York Americana roots scene, and lucky enough to have been in her illustrations- if you’ve played the Jalopy in the last three years, you probably have – you’ve seen yourself in action, intent on your craft, in motion. Hoffman is one of those artists who is able to perfectly capture the essence of a musician in just a few deft brushstrokes. The best of her pencil-and-watercolor sketches currently on display at the Jalopy – which just turned five years old – catches the Roulette Sisters in classic poses: resonator guitarist Mamie dipping just a bit, raising her eyebrows; guitarist Meg just thisclose to deadpan but having a great time; violist Karen unselfconsciously lost in the music, and washboardist Megan holding down the rhythm with a grin. Then there’s Craig Chesler smiling, chilling, playing ukulele; the Newton Gang in characteristically intense mode, even in a rare acoustic setting; Kelli Rae Powell off to the side while her band wails, wryly smiling as she hits what’s probably another devious double entendre; the Brotherhood of the Jug Band Blues careening through yet another boisterous solo; and the M Shanghai String Band’s offhandedly excellent clawhammer banjo player/singer in a couple of characteristically intense moments. These are just a few of the many new drawings Hoffman has on display at the Jalopy (she’s offering any print from this series, signed, for $30).

This past weekend, the M Shanghai String Band played the opening party for Hoffman’s show. They’re well known, well-loved and well documented via Hoffman’s art, and supposedly the other day on the cover of the New York Post. Hoffman started drawing at the Jalopy simply because she’s in the neighborhood and it was a cool way for her to perfect her craft while her baby slept; likewise, M Shanghai have a community feel, having taken their name from the now-defunct Chinese restaurant whose basement was their original home. They seem to be a mix of everybody in Williamsburg who really loved oldtime country songs and string band music and decided to get together to create it, without regard to age, or whoever’s trust fund was most extravagant, or who happened to have the lowest body-fat percentage or could go the most consecutive years without taking a shower. If you listen closely, you hear references to the Q train or other New York institutions in their songs: they’re literally taking oldtime acoustic country music to new places. Frontwoman Philippa Thompson played a neat solo on the spoons; resonator guitarist Austin Hughes turned in one casual, cool urban country tune after another, often punctuated by Jalopy regular Shakey Dave Pollack’s soulful, tersely bluesy harmonica. Because the show was right after work, they didn’t seem to have the full contingent onstage, but no matter: it was a trip to a different world.

So if you’re new to the Jalopy, prepare to enter that world. Let your guard down. It’s a good place. Forget the horrible experience you just had at Arlene’s, or at Pianos last week: the Jalopy is warm and welcoming. The moment you walk in the door, you could be making new friends. For the moment, Hoffman’s exhibit is still up the club, an extra good reason to make the trip.