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No New Abnormal

Tag: sarah alden

Violinist Sarah Alden and Her Band Play One of the Year’s Funnest, Most Counterintuitive Shows at Barbes

Violinist Sarah Alden is a founding member of the late, great Luminescent Orchestrii, who were as definitive, and multistylistically amazing, as any New York circus rock band ever was. After that boisterous unit was pretty much finished, she put out a similarly brilliant 2013 album, Fists of Violets, her first as a fulltime frontwoman. Since then she’s been in demand in both bluegrass and Eastern European folk circles. She’s also got a long-awaited new album, Up to the Sky, due out momentarily. A copule of weeks ago at Barbes, she and the band treated the crowd to a sneak peek that was as eclectic and adrenalizing as any other project she’s been involved with up to this point, which says a lot.

With Rima Fand on violin and piano, Kyle Sanna on guitar, Matthias Kunzli on drums and Ben Gallina on bass, Alden opened with a reggae tune. Uh oh, was this going to be just a pale approximation, like the Zach Brown Band? Nopr. The rhythm section had a great time with it; it was like watching Bob Marley’s drum-and-bass team backing a spiky, kinetic chamber pop band. Sanna jangled enigmatically as the album’s swaying title track got underway, Alden leading the group up to a catchy, Talking Heads-like peak on the chorus, both the strings and vocal harmonies swirling with acidic, Bartok-like close harmonies that quickly turned out to be one of this group’s most distinctive traits. “Strangers are we,” Alden and Fand harmonized with a similar edge to kick off the number after that, a mashup of 70s folk-rock and indie classical.

Next was a funky, quirky song with Sanna playing a simple, catchy, circling guitar riff over a trip-hop beat, the violins stabbing at the melody with their pizzicato accents. Alden’s pensive rainy-day vocal intro after that hinted that the song would stay in pastoral territory; instead, the band took it up with a guitar-fueled art-rock gravitas; then the band gave it a doublespeed Keystone Kops scamper. Some of the material reminded of cellist Jody Redhage’s pastoral chamber-pop quartet Rose & the Nightingale; others, like the heartbroken, elegantly crescendoing number that came next, reminded of Tin Hat, when that group has vocals out front.

Fand’s wide-angle, Asian-tinged piano mingled with Sanna’s steadily austere strums under Alden’s airy vocals and violin on the night’s most anthemic tune. After a turn back in a catchy, cyclically bucolic direction, the band picked up the pace with biting, insistent, minor-key guitar funk, like ELO’s Evil Woman but with a better singer out front. Alden credited her childood trips with her grandmother, searching for the grave of a long lost relative in Sugar Grove Cemetery in Wilmington, Ohio, as inspiration for the plaintive, Appalachian-tinged Aunt Viola’s Waltz. From there the band blazed through a careening take of the noir guitar-driven title track from Alden’s previous album, ablaze with sizzling tremolo-picking and cascades from Sanna. Persuaded to play an encore, they did the reggae tune again. Alden’s next gig is a free show at the World Financial Center on December 15 at 5:30 PM; she and the band are also there on the 19th at 4:30 PM.

Black Sea Hotel Top the Bill at One of 2014’s Most Spellbinding Shows

“This song’s about waiting for your neighbor to die so you can marry his wife,” one of Black Sea Hotel‘s three singers, Shelley Thomas, cheerily explained to the crowd at Joe’s Pub Wednesday night.

“Perky!” her bandmate Willa Roberts grinned. She was being sarcastic, of course. The ancient Bulgarian and Macedonian folk songs that the Brooklyn vocal trio sing date from an era when life was shorter and possibly more brutal than today, an atmosphere underscored by the music’s biting minor keys, edgy chromatics, eerie close harmonies and otherworldly microtones. The group treated the crowd to what was essentially a live recreation of their latest album The Forest Is Shaking and Swaying, along with a haunting, encore from the band’s debut cd. The three women held the crowd rapt with their original arrangements of both obscure and iconic themes, with intricate, intoxicating counterpoint, tightly dancing tempos, unexpected stops and starts and split-second choreography. There’s some irony in the fact that Black Sea Hotel’s often centuries-old repertoire is built on harmony as sophisticated and avant garde as anything being played or sung today.

Their camaraderie onstage was unselfconsciously warm, linking hands loosely as they sang, hugging each other here and there, high on the music. The three women’s voices are so similar that it’s hard to tell who’s singing what unless you’re watching. In terms of raw power, it’s a toss-up between Roberts and Thomas. but it seems that Small has the most astonishing range of the three: for a natural soprano, it’s stunning to witness how she can get so much power and resonance out of her low register And the three switch roles: Roberts got to handle the most highly ornamented, toughest leaps and bounds early on, then passed the baton to Small. Thomas is the latest addition to the group, reaffirming her status as one of the most eclectic of New York’s elite singers. That she managed to learn the entire set from memory on short notice wasn’t only impressive: without that feat, the concert probably wouldn’t have happened at all. And as spectacular as the three women’s vocal acrobatics were, it was the final number, with its long, slow fade down, building the suspense to breaking point, that might have been the high point of their set.

The opening acts, assembled by Small, were every bit as good. Her trio Hydra, with Rima Fand and Yula Beeri, a vehicle for original composition in antique Balkan and occasionally Middle Eastern styles, were first. The second song of their too-brief set, a soaring Balkan art-rock anthem of sorts, had a bulk and gravitas that that sounded infinitely more mighty than just three voices and a mandolin could deliver. Alternatingly sweeping and austere, they blended the Balkan and the Beatlesque.

A subset of the even mightier all-female accordion group the Main Squeeze Orchestra were next. Melissa Elledge, Josephine Decker, Rene Fan, Denise Koncelik, Rachel Swaner and Elaine Yau reminded that pretty much everything sounds good if played on an accordion, multiplied by six. A classically-tinged march, a couple of ominously cinematic themes, a coyly disguised generic new wave hit from the 80s, a campy anthem that sounded like it could be Queen but might have been something like Lady Gag. and a deliciously unexpected romp through a boisterous klezmer dance all got a seamlessly tight, winkingly virtuosic treatment.

And a trio version of one of New York’s original Romany-inspired bands, Luminescent Orchestrii (Fand and Sarah Alden on violins, with ringer Kyle Sanna on acoustic guitar) ran through a jaunty dance in medieval French; a bracing, hypnotically insistent Middle Eastern-spiced number; a similarly trance-inducing, circular Macedonian theme and a darkly blues-inflected art-rock violin number, all of which more than hinted at the kind of electricity this band can generate with all their members.

Sarah Alden Puts Out a Darkly Sizzling String Band Album

On one hand, Sarah Alden’s new Fists of Violets is sort of the new Luminescent Orchestrii album. The co-founder of that dark, sometimes carnivalesque Balkan ensemble has her bandmates, bassist Benjy Fox-Rosen and multi-instrumentalists Rima Fand and Sxip Shirey, alongside her in addition to first-call accordionist Patrick Farrell and Nation Beat drummer Scott Kettner. On the other hand, this album puts the violinist front and center on a searingly diverse mix of original and traditional songs and instrumentals from two continents. Alden is one of those rare musicians who can play pretty much any style of music and channel any emotion she wants; she embraces Americana as vividly and expertly she does Eastern European sounds, all the while adding her own signature, counterintuitive style. That eclecticism extends to her songwriting and choice of cover material as well. The album is full of surprises: Alden does just about everything differently than you would expect.

It begins with a surprisingly funky take of the old Appalachian ballad Dink’s Tune and ends with the coy, innuendo-fueled accordion waltz Come Take a Trip on My Airship. One of the best and most original songs here is the title track, acoustic Balkan punk rock with Alden and Fand’s violins playing Philip Glass-like broken chords over noirish changes. They follow that with Aunt Viola’s Waltz, a starkly beautiful, pulsing, elegaic, Appalachian-tinged homage to the woman who first taught Alden the violin.

Ida Red, a brisk western swing stomp, brings to mind the Knitters (X doing their oldtime country music side project). Other Balkan bands might likely rock the hell out of Niz Banju Idem, but Alden and her crew attack it with restraint and by doing that make it all the more plaintive and otherworldly, capping it off with a long, wailing Farrell accordion solo. Alden’s unaffectedly bittersweet maple-amber voice brings out every bit of creepy southern gothic apocalypticism in their slowly shuffling take of When Sorrows Encompass Me Round. Then she cuts loose on the oldtimey noir stoner swing tune Willie the Weeper, the most carnivalesque song here, Shirey’s tremolo-picking on the banjo leading up to a long, ominously hypnotic outro. Alden turns in a a jaunty voice-and-piano duo version of Old Man Moon and follows that with the sizzling noir bluegrass romp Ruby Honey Are You Mad at Me, Shirey’s steel guitar spiraling out of the sky in one of the album’s more memorably dramatic moments. There are too many other moments like that to count here: this is one of 2013’s best.

An Overlooked Lorca-Inspired Art-Rock Treasure from Rima Fand

Much as this blog’s raison d’etre is to keep an eye on what’s happening now, the past is littered with unfairly overlooked albums. One recent one, from 2011, is Rima Fand’s Sol, Caracol (Spanish for “Sun, Snail”). It comprises many of the songs from her theatrical project Don Cristobal: Billy-Club Man, which sets Federico Garcia Lorca poetry to frequently haunting, flamenco-tinged original music. This is the closest thing to an original soundtrack recording that exists, part dark flamenco rock, part noir cabaret, part chamber pop. Besides playing violin, the Luminescent Orchestrii co-founder distinguishes herself on mandolin and keyboards as well, accompanied by an all-star cast from many styles of south-of-the-border and Balkan music.

Although Don Cristobal and his sidekick Rosita are a Spanish version of Punch and Judy, there’s very little here that’s vaudevillian, consistent with Garcia Lorca’s full-fledged rather than one-dimensionally farcical depiction of the characters. The opening track, Midnight Hours, sets a dramatic lead vocal by David Fand over a spiky blend of the bandleader’s mandolin with Avi Fox-Rosen and Chris Rael’s guitars, a soaring choir behind them. You might call this art-flamenco. Lucia Pulido sings the dynamically charged Replica, Rima Fand doubling on mandolin and accordion. Cicada, a shivery, hypnotically suspenseful string piece, blends her violin with those of Sarah Alden and Not Waving But Drowning’s Pinky Weitzman and Matt Moran‘s vibraphone.

Justine Williams
sings the creepy, marching Rosita’s Song. The choir returns for Don Woodsman-Heart, a moody flamenco vamp lit up by Quince Marcum‘s alto horn, morphing into a dreaming, longing waltz. Pulido takes over the mic again on the terse, minimalistic Confusion over My Brightest Diamond cellist Maria Jeffers‘ bassline. David Fand returns to imploring lead vocals on the insistent Abre Tu Balcon (Open Up Your Balcony – that’s Don Cristobal imploring Rosita to have a word with him). They follow that with a cartoonish miniature, Te Mate and then Hat-Ache, another flamenco-tinged, angst-fueled, love-stricken ballad.

The album’s centerpiece is the macabre, carnivalesque Billy-Club Ballet, the bandleader on piano with guitar and percussion, Fox-Rosen’s jagged electric incisions adding menace up to a twinkling piano interlude and then back down. They follow a brief mandolin waltz with La Monja Gitana (The Country Nun), rising from another austere 3/4 rhythm, with a rich, bittersweet vocal from Rima Fand.

Eva Salina Primack and Aurelia Shrenker a.k.a. innovative Balkan/Appalachian duo AE sing the sweeping, tensely moonlit Lullaby for a Sleeping Mirror, building to a lush, anxious round. The album ends with the towering overture La Cogida y la Muerte, sung pensively in English and Spanish by Abigail Wright, the acidic close harmonies of the string section contrasting with Katie Down‘s anxiously dancing flute and the distantly circling trumpets of Ben Syversen, Sarah Ferholt, JR Hankins and Ben Holmes. Surreal, sad, eclectic and vivid, it more than does justice to Lorca’s equally surreal, sad, ironic poetry. The album comes with a useful lyric booklet including English translations.