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A Rapturous, Hauntingly Spare Solo Album From Enigmatic Cello Rock Songstress Serena Jost

The sheer hummability of cellist/multi-instrumentalist Serena Jost’s music contrasts with the opaqueness of her lyrics. In her music, nothing is ever as it seems despite all indications to the contrary. That enigmatic sensibility has served her well over the past fifteen years. The closest comparison is ELO’s Jeff Lynne, a similarly brilliant tunesmith whose signature sound blends classical ideas with rock, and has a similarly distinctively, elegant production style as well. Jost’s newest album, Up to the Sky – streaming at her music page – is her most ambitious to date. It’s a solo recording, just cello and vocals, recorded in the rich, reverberating sonics of St. Peter’s Church at 346 W 20th St. in Chelsea, where she’s playing the album release show on April 19 at 7:30 PM. Cover is $10; a reception will follow.

Window opens the album. Jost’s stark, ambered low chords, circling in a Philip Glass vein, anchor her clear, pensive vocals. A recurring shooting star reference adds to the nocturnal rapture and unease.

The influence of Jost’s frequent collaborator Amanda Thorpe shines through plaintively in The Cut, a canteringly hypnotic, Britfolk-tinged, plaintively imagistic lament. Likewise, the wave motion of Clement – just vocalese and cello – sets the stage for Great Conclusions. Playing this with her band, Jost cuts loose with a galloping, crescendoing intensity, but in this version, her pizzicato attack is muted, her vocals understated and clear, echoing Linda Thompson as the song’s gloomily allusive narrative winds out.

Hallway. another instrumental with vocalese, brings in a hazy late-afternoon sun, introducing the baroque-flavored vignette Happiness. “Happiness has come and gone without warning, just a lantern in the night.” Jost intones.

Lullaby is a melody much of the world knows from childhood; the cello adds a newly somber undercurrent. By contrast, It’s a Delight rises to an unexpectedly triumphant crescendo over the sparest, circling low-register riff. Jost works that dichotomy again in Silver Star, its images of escape and release over subtle variations on a mantra-like cello phrase. The album concludes, unresolved, with the fragmentary, echoing, mysterious Red Door. Fans of darkly individualistic songwriters from Carol Lipnik to Connie Converse will devour this. Indie classical people ought to check this out as well – for what it’s worth, Jost once arranged and led a fifty-cello performance of Terry Riley’s In C!

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Serena Jost Brings Her Elegantly Gorgeous Cello Rock to Barbes

Good Cop: Serena Jost and her band play elegant, old-world, allusively beautiful songs. Listening to her, I’d want a glass of wine, maybe a single malt. Like something they’d have at Barbes. But malt liquor? No way!

Bad Cop: Way. Nothing goes with a Serena Jost show like a few Crazy Horse tallboys.

Good Cop: So that’s what you were up to on June 29th. Daydrunk on a Saturday afternoon. What bar serves that crap, anyway?

Bad Cop: Bar? I went to the deli. Then I went to to the community garden on 9th Street.

Good Cop: I thought you weren’t supposed to drink there…

Bad Cop: Who do you think created New York community gardens? People who drink bespoke locavore artisanal tea?

Good Cop: OK, you have a point. And I know your old hangout, Lakeside Lounge, is gone now. But Crazy Horse, damn, that stuff is foul…

Bad Cop: The true taste of cardboard! But anyway, what was coolest about that Saturday was that aside from having a nice place in the shade to kick back with a beer, there was a great band. Fender Rhodes, bass and drums. Slow, slinky, minor-key funk grooves: the ultimate soundtrack for a beautiful summer day in New York. According to the sign on the garden gate, as far as I can remember, the band was called Vic & the People, but I googled them and didn’t get any results.

Good Cop: What were they playing? Originals?

Bad Cop: I guess. Long bluesy instrumental jams, basically. Kind of funky, a little jazz, a little latin influence. The whole band was good. Pretty psychedelic too. No wanky bass solos, no coked-out drum solos, just good summery New York music.

Good Cop: I would have enjoyed that. You should have texted me!

Bad Cop: I thought you’d be on the train so I didn’t. But that put me in a perfect mood for Serena Jost’s show at the Rockwood afterward. It was great to get sort of lost in one band and then get completely lost in another. My favorite part of her show was that big swell out of the verse into the chorus of Sweet Mystery. That’s such a catchy song. On one hand, you start nodding your head to that Motown beat, you know the crescendo is coming a mile away, but you want it so bad, and then you get it…oh baby. That was heaven.

Good Cop: And you can hear it for yourself when Serena Jost and her band play Barbes at 8 PM on July 31. They make a great segue with the headliners, Kotorino, who are playing at 10 and are one of the best bands in New York. They mix latin sounds with noir cabaret and circus rock and like Serena’s band, they have a very lush sound. Although Kotorino have more of a brass band and jazz influence, where Serena’s sound is more classically oriented.

Bad Cop: She’s a cellist. All cellists have that classical thing. She’s a symphony orchestra player. And she was in Rasputina for probably longer than anybody except Melora Creager.

Good Cop: Yeah, that in itself is an accomplishment. Let’s tell the people about the Rockwood show, which should give everybody a good idea of what we can look forward to at Barbes…

Bad Cop: OK. They opened with A Bird Will Sing, which is the title track on her most recent album. A swinging art-pop song that the crowd of douchebags who were at the bar, after the band before, hollered and blabbered through. They didn’t give a shit. Amateur hour: Jersey assholes completely blitzed on one beer. But then they started to clear out and you could hear the band. Amazing band, too: Julian Maile on guitar, Rob Jost – no relation – on bass, Robert DiPietro on drums.

Good Cop: My favorite song in the set was Great Conclusions, which has this lithely dancing, ballet-like verse and then this heavy, bada-BUMP, bada-BUMP heavy metal groove on the chorus. Who would have thought, you know?

Bad Cop: The Move would have done something like that. But that’s oldschool. Early 70s. Nice to see somebody doing that kind of thing these days. Not that there aren’t other good art-rock bands out there.

Good Cop: You think anybody knows what we mean by art-rock?

Bad Cop: That’s a good question. The term goes back to the 70s. Pink Floyd, ELO, Procol Harum, you know…

Good Cop: …the Universal Thump, Botanica, Kotorino.

Bad Cop: Exactly. Second song of the set: douchebags haven’t completely cleared out of the bar yet. Luscious bittersweet major-minor changes. Serena’s playing guitar which isn’t her main instrument but she’s good at it anyway. And that bruised, haunted voice: I love her songs but I can’t figure out what any of them are about.

Good Cop: Maybe she’s trying to draw you in. Maybe you should listen more closely..

Bad Cop: Hmmm…no objection there! Next song: sort of slow Highway 61 Dylan doing Fairport Convention. Wow, it’s an instrumental! With wordless vocals! I had forgotten about that!

Good Cop: I tell you, we’re taking over this blog. We get to see all the best shows.

Bad Cop: Let’s do play-by-play for the rest of the Rockwood gig and then wrap this up. An absolutely gorgeously soaring, swaying, hypnotic Britfolk-flavored waltz with some out-of-this-world vocals. A couple of BUMP-badda-BUMP cello-rock anthems, including your favorite.

Good Cop; You sure you want to wrap this up so quickly?

Bad Cop: Blog Boss says to remember that nobody has time to spend a lot of time at a music blog. People work for a living. Everybody’s exhausted.

Good Cop: OK, I’m listening back to your recording, who’s that playing accordion?

Bad Cop: Accordion? Serena Jost doesn’t have an accordion player. Oh wait, that’s Isle of Klezbos. Another East Village garden show. More on that later…

Good Cop: So are we going to Serena’s show on the 31st at Barbes?

Bad Cop: Sure, why not. It’s free, anyway. If Blog Boss doesn’t approve, tough. We just might write about it anyway. You know where I can get a can of Crazy Horse in Park Slope?

Good Cop: I think the further downhill you go, the more likely you are to find it. That’s a double entendre, by the way…

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.).