New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Tag: Sara Stalnaker

Art-Rock Bandleader Hilary Downes Releases a Searingly Metaphorical New Solo Album

From the late zeros to the early part of this decade, pianist Hilary Downes was frontwoman for the Snow, who rank with Changing Modes and Botanica as one of the greatest art-rock bands to call this city their home. Since then, Downes has hardly been idle, and she’s finally releasing her similarly brilliant debut as a solo bandleader, Secrets of Birds – streaming at Bandcamp – at Barbes this Saturday night, Jan 28 at 8 PM. Folk noir standout Jessie Kilguss guests on vocals; eclectic A-list accordionist Will Holshouser leads one of his many projects to open the night at 6. After the Barbes show, most of the crowd are heading over to Freddy’s for Robin Aigner‘s Leonard Cohen tribute night.

Downes has a distinctive voice – a crystalline, often swoony yet precise delivery – a laser-like sense for a mot juste and a penchant for grim metaphors and multiple meanings. Meaning, she doesn’t stop at double entendres. The band behind her rises to the occasion to create a lush backdrop for her sometimes elusive, sometimes crushingly direct narrratives.

The opening track is Caldera, an elegant but venomously interconnected series of mythological scenes: “One could predict that the love they felt was equal to the harm they could inflict,” Downes intones, hushed and deadpan. Jeffrey Schaeffer’s waves of cymbals and sardonic swoops from the string section – violinist Karl Meyer and cellist Sara Stalnaker – drive the point home at the end with piercing accuracy.

Downes brings her torchiest nuance to the swing shuffle Deep Well, awash in chilly water metaphors and nocturnal unease:

Would that she could hold the night
Cold and without wind
To hold all of it oh so tight
Until it let her in

Her vocals bring calm and tenderness alongside Mike Cohen’s lingering guitars in contrast with Meyer’s stark violin throughout the optimistic Americana-tinged ballad Hearts Plateau. Then the band picks up the pace with the steamy, bossa-tinged Masters of the Table, a feast of imagery that gives the bandleader a slam-dunk opportunity to flip the script. She’s a master of turning the tables on what you might expect.

Dylan Nowik’s growling, stately lead guitar rises over darkly baroque strings and Cohen’s noir-tinged jangle on The Owl, a majestic and subtly sardonic portrait of a predator. Downes pulls out all the stops in Canon of Proportions, a purposeful, backbeat-driven anthem that’s the key to the album’s bitter central narrative:

Left long shadows in the sand
His arms, wings of a plane
He was Davinci’s man
His soul dwarfed by his frame

Matt Brandau’s boomy bass kicks off the album’s best and most cruelly vivid song, The Gist. It wouldn’t be out of place on Portishead’s Live at Roseland album:

Lady luck, she found her wealth
Took it from her former self
Queen of the sky, queen of the plain
She made herself a nest where birds could lay

The band take their deepest plunge into noir on album’s title track: “Save me from these thoughts, divebomb every part,” Downes laments, yet she’s just as defiant: “I’m not afraid of the darkness in my way.” She ends the album with the death-fixated psychedelic soul ballad The Word and then the waltzing, surprisingly optimistic Rainbow. It’s only January, but we have a real contender for best original album of 2017 here.

Advertisements

The Snow’s Disaster Is Your Mistress: An Art-Rock Classic

While it might seem a little extreme to proclaim the Snow‘s latest album Disaster Is Your Mistress to be a classic, somebody has to do it: four or five times a year, albums this good make their way over the transom here. Full disclosure: this actually came out in 2012. A file was sent; the link didn’t work; the ball was dropped on this end and finally retrieved close to a year later. Things like that happen around here more often than you will ever know.

In the age where indie rock is usually recorded by cutting and pasting a simple verse and chorus so that the band (or, possibly, the producer) doesn’t have to play either more than once, the Snow still make songs that sound that seem like they were a joy rather than a chore to create. The Brooklyn art-rock band distinguish themselves for having not one but two brilliant songwriters in singer/keyboardist Hilary Downes and guitarist/singer/trumpeter Pierre de Gaillande. Downes’ songs tend to be torchier, crafted to fit her crystalline, Anita O’Day-esque jazz voice. Her co-bandleader’s songs tend to rock harder, sometimes with the dark garage-rock edge that his first New York band, Melomane (who are in dry dock now but once in awhile make an appearance onstage) were known for. Each songwriter’s lyrics have edge, and bite, and clever wordplay imbued with black humor.

The Snow’s arrangements and production on their previous two albums had a chamber pop elegance, but the new album is a throwback to the days of peak-era Pink Floyd – each song has an intricately arranged, symphonic sweep. No verse or chorus is ever exactly the same: guitar and keyboard voicings and effects change, depending on the lyrics, rising and falling with a sometimes epic grandeur. Most albums can be summed up in a couple of paragraphs, but there are so many interesting things going on in this one that it takes awhile to get to know, and it takes some time explaining, and it’s all worth it.

It opens with a brief, staccato, dancing string intro fueled by Sara Stalnaker’s cello and Karl Meyer’s violin. The first song is Downes’ Paper Raincoats, alternating between a stately, marching art-rock theme and a funkier groove:

Feed your disequilibrium
Until the planted seed is born
We’re wearing paper raincoats
In a season of storm
Are you on your way home?

she asks anxiously. De Gaillande’s simmering minor-key bolero Little Girl is hilarious, and vicious, and poignant as a portait of an annoyingly irresponsible Edie Sedgwick type. It starts out sympathetically and then gets brutal, with fuzztone guitar and some LMFAO snide vocoder. The album’s title track layers swirling, ELO-flavored psychedelics into a swaying, 6/8 anthem, Christian Bongers’ bass rising tensely as the chorus kicks in. It works on multiple levels: as a metaphor for simply leaving a bad situation behind, or for a nation at the edge of disaster.

Pomegranate is one of de Gaillande’s playful, droll, catchy numbers, evolution as a metaphor for guy hooking up with girl. “I guess we lose a lot of fluids when we finally make the climb,” he grins, drummer Jeff Schaefer pushing it with a purposeful new wave beat and then taking it down halfspeed to a quiet interlude lowlit by Downes’ coy vocalese. If the radio played songs this smart, this would be the album’s hit single.

Downes’ pensive chamber pop ballad Glass Door has a gentle, Moody Blues-ish woodwind chart – David Spinley on clarinet and Quentin Jennings on flute – and one of the album’s best lyrics:

Here you are a fugitive
On the chamber you depend
A little peace, a little shelter
And safety from buffetting winds
But smoke gets in, inside this sphere
And in this haze we live my dear
One warden’s custody you plead
For another form of slavery
Where are the rooms inside of you? 

Good Morning Cambodia takes a savage look at how the west looked the other way during Pol Pot’s genocidal regime, de Gaillande’s banjo eerily mimicking a koto as the verse scampers to the faux-cheery turnaround. It builds to an apprehensive backbeat Romany rock anthem fueled by Meyer’s sailing violin, and then a series of cruelly funny false endings.

Black and Blue builds from funky trip-hop spiced with Ken Thomson’s baritone sax and Downes’ come-on vocals and then winds down to a gorgeous art-rock chorus. Dirty Diamond is a subdued wee-hours duet, part countrypolitan, part noir cabaret, solace for anyone stuck on the corporate treadmill:

There’s a cruel character
And its cunning opposite
And they follow you around
As they watchy you step in shit
It’s a drag to run this race
With these strivers and their baggage 
You never seem to keep the pace
As they rip and run you ragged 

With its Cure references, the brief, brisk duet Reaching Back is the closest thing to Bushwick blog-rock here, soberingly weighing the pros and cons of keeping a tradition alive, be it familial or artistic.  The album ends with Stay Awake, a slowly swaying apprehensive folk-rock anthem a la the Strawbs, imploring a nameless, dissolute figure to clean up his or her act:

Push on the verge of the surging ocean
Missing the days of the sweet commotion past
You felt your way to the creeping notion
It’s a lie that will make devotion last
And the bosses lost their minds
And you might not have the line
And the dotted line that you signed
When you were flying was a lie

And you resigned

While de Gaillande has made his frequently hilarious, richly tuneful English-language Georges Brassens cover band his main focus lately, the Snow is still active. Here’s the itunes link.