New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: serge gainsbourg

Fearlessly Individualistic, Counterintuitive Classical Hits From Pianist Khatia Buniatishvili

By oldschool record label standards, releasing an album of greatest hits from the classical canon guarantees yourself a pretty wide audience. The theory is that most of the crowd who will buy it doesn’t know anything beyond the standard repertoire and can’t differentiate between interpretations. From a critical perspective, this kind of album invites disaster, a minefield of crushing comparisons to every great artist who has recorded those same pieces over the past century. How does pianist Khatia Buniatishvili‘s new album Labyrinth – streaming at Spotify – stack up against the competition? Spoiler alert: this is a very individualistic record. And that’s a very good thing.

Consider the opening number, Deborah’s Theme, from the late, great Ennio Morricone’s score to the film Once Upon a Time in America. Buniatishvili plays it with such limpidness, such tenderness, such spaciousness that plenty of listeners could call it extreme.

Then she tackles Satie’s Gymnopédie No. 1: so easy to play, but so brutally challenging to figure out rhythmically. Buniatishvili gives it just enough rubato to avoid falling into the trap so many other pianists have, taking the easy way out and turning it into a maudlin waltz. This is haunting, and revelatory, and augurs well for the rest of the record.

Other pianists approach Chopin’s E Minor Prelude with a nervous, scurrying attack. Buniatishvili lets it linger in a ineffable sadness before she chooses her escape route. Again, it’s an unorthodox path to take, but once again she validates her approach. The Ligeti etude Arc-en-ciel, one of the lesser-known works here gets a similar treatment, its belltone sonics exploding just when not expected to.

Not all of the rest of the record is this dark. Her piano-four-hands take of Bach’s Badinerie, from Orchestral Suite No. 2 in B minor, BWV 1067 with Gvantsa Buniatishvili is a clenched-teeth romp. Yet the Air on the G String gets reinvented as a dirge: the first instinct is to laugh, but then again the choice to play it as Procol Harum actually works. She does the same with Scarlatti later on.

Buniatishvili builds baroque counterpoint in an increasingly crushing take of Rachmaninoff’s Vocalise: probably not what the composer envisioned, although there’s no arguing with the logic of her dynamic contrasts. She follows a deviously ragtimey arrangement of Serge Gainsbourg’s La Javanaise with a haphazardly pummeling and then luxuriant version of Villa-Lobos’ Valsa da Dor, which also works in context.

The pairing of French baroque composer Francois Couperin’s circling, delicately ornamented Les Barricades Mystérieuses with a Bach ripoff of a famous Vivaldi theme is an even whiter shade of pale. Fans of 20th century repertoire are rewarded with richly lingering version of Part’s stark Pari Intervallo and a hauntingly enveloping performance of Philip Glass’ I’m Going to Make a Cake (from the film The Hours).

There’s also an opulent interpretation of the well-known Brahms Intermezzo, Liszt’s nocturnal Consolation (Pensée poétique) and another Bach piece, the brooding Adagio from the Concerto in D minor, BWV 974. Oh yeah – there’s another famous thing here that clocks in at 4:33. Don’t let that lead you to believe that the album’s over yet. Stodgier classical music fans will hear this and dismiss much of it as punk rock. Let them. Their loss.

Strange, Clever French Pop from Benjamin Schoos

In French rock, the Cure were for many years what the Beatles were in the Anglophone world: a template for how to do things. So it’s no surprise that Benjamin Schoos’ album Chinaman vs. Chinagirl has a cold 80s sheen, with a couple of tracks that come close to nicking melodies straight from the Robert Smith songbook. But the album is a lot more musically diverse than that. On one hand, it’s partly a teens update on Serge Gainsbourg. In a smooth Gauloise baritone, Schoos talks his way through a pun-infested Chinese wrestling narrative – how’s that for surreal? On the other, it’s artsy 80s pop with chilly faux-retro teens synth timbres keeening and woozing through the mix, sometimes over a stiff new wave beat, sometimes swaying forward another ten years with a trip-hop rhythm.

Do you have to speak French to get this music? As catchy as the tunes are, not necessarily, but to have any appreciation of Schoos’ sense of humor, yes. He’s as influenced by French rap as he is by Gainsbourg – everything is a pun, some of them very funny, some less so. There’s actually hardly anything Chinese about the album, although wrestling – both the real and phony kinds – and boxing serve as recurrent metaphors for guy/girl tension. The album’s bouncy first song, Marquise doesn’t really set the stage – it’s a kiss-off to an ice queen and may have literary or political resonance (a thinly veiled Carla Bruni dis, maybe?). After that, Schoos duets with Laetitia Sadier on a catchy new wave pop song that, predictably, sounds like Stereolab covering the Cure. Profession Catcheur (Pro Wrestler) works a series of jokes – and a particularly amusing one about Margaret Thatcher – into a trip-hop spy theme, followed by the lush, artsy, faux-angsted piano ballad La Chinoise.

The album wouldn’t be French if it didn’t have a fingersnapping faux lounge jazz number, would it? This one’s a snidely satirical portrait of a pop culture maniac: “Some people like the art of smoking, putting on the patch…me, I live only for wrestling,” he tells the world. That prosaic English translation doesn’t do justice to Shoos’ wordplay.

As a centerpiece, the title track is a letdown, ripping off Bowie’s Ashes to Ashes. But Schoos gets the jokes going again with Le Combat, sort of a rewrite of the duet with Sadier, this one personifying the idea of love, Schoos insisting that he’s going to kick love’s ass. After that, over ominous, icy chamber pop, Schoos revisits the famous fight between surrealist icon Arthur Cravan and world heavyweight Jack Johnson: “That’s the life I’m embracing, I invite you, my friends, come help with the party, throw a white guy a crumb,” Schoos declares. The album ends with an absolutely evil duet between Chrissie Hynde (who gamely makes an attempt to sing in French) and Marie France, two girls yucking it up about how much they like to make men suffer. There’s a twelfth track, but it’s anticlimactic…and it’s in English.

Who is the audience for this? In English, probably the same crowd who’ve embraced Gainsbourg: silly as much of this album is, it can be a lot of fun. By the way, apropos of the title, “Chinaman” doesn’t carry the racist connotation in French that it does in English. Neither the album nor its tracks seem to have made it to youtube or dailymotion (the French youtube), although it is on Spotify.

The Atlantic Antic: Real Brooklyn

The massive Atlantic Antic street fair on Sunday afternoon made one thing very clear: 99% of Brooklyn wants nothing to do with the Atlantic Yards development, the Brooklyn Nets or the shoddy new arena where they play – which is already rusting, since the developers who built it were too cheap to use good materials, or spring for a few cans of Rust-oleum. “Ratner building – douchebag!” Les Sans Culottes frontman Clermont Ferrand ad-libbed during the band’s version of Serge Gainsbourg’s New York USA, playing on the street a few blocks north of Sahadi’s. Out in front of Hank’s a little later, “psycho swing” band Tri-State Conspiracy’s guitarist pointed back at the rundown bar behind him and laughed: “Who would have thought, you’re not the biggest eyesore in the neighborhood anymore.” It’s not clear if the excellent gospel group out in front of the church a few blocks closer to downtown Brooklyn, or the mbira player a couple of doors down, or the funk or hip-hop acts past Hoyt Street had anything to say about the scam to seize private property in the name of eminent domain that paved the way for the neighborhood’s newest and largest eyesore. But it wouldn’t be a stretch. Meanwhile, Borough President Marty Markowitz, one of the arena’s most notorious shills, made the rounds, sucking up to the fair’s organizers, but the crowd paid little attention other than booing him vigorously.

But the music was great, and it was oldschool Brooklyn: no anorexic boys new to Bushwick standing slack-jawed, watching their former Evergreen or Hampshire classmates mumhling tunelessly over randomly awkward guitar chords. Tri-State Conspiracy mocked that element with their best song, The Clone, a slashing minor-key ska-punk tune:: “All your opinions match the crowd you’re hanging with…your voice is weak, yet you’re so authoritative every time you speak ,” their trumpeter/frontman snarled. A little earlier, Les Sans Culottes voiced the same contempt in Les Enfants Terribles, one of their more amusing faux-French garage rock numbers:

Ces precieuses ridicules
Avec leurs tetes dans leurs culs
Les enfants du parodie
Faisant pipi dans leurs lits

That translates roughly as “These ridiculous, precious parody kids, with their heads up their asses, pissing the bed.” Les Sans Culottes have been playing ferociously funny songs for a long time: they might have played the very first one of these Atlantic Avenue fairs back in the 90s. They still lovingly make fun of the French: Babar, baguettes and bidets each got a biting, minor-key song this time out, but lately the band has been shooting at larger game. The best song of their set was a savagely anthemic broadside directed at at a notorious French rapist: “C’est moi, le playboy international, un legend avec les initiels – ce ne’est pas un criminel, mais son client est Sofitel.”

That’s the genius of Les Sans Culottes – while their sometimes intentionally fractured French lyrics are very clever, evem if you don’t speak the language, it’s often easy to get the gist of them. Behind Ferrand (who took that name after a particularly egregious political scandal shook that part of his “native land”), harmony singers Kit Kat Le Noir and Courtney Louvre, bassist Pommes Frites, guitarist Geddy Liaison, keyboardist Johnny Dieppe and drummer Jacques Strappe romped through one catchy tune after another. Stealing riffs from Johnny Kidd, X, Dylan and Led Zep, the organ swirled and dipped, the guitar burned, the bass rumbled over a surprisingly tight swing beat as Ferrand and the two women made fun of hot girls, ungrateful ex-boyfriends, cactuses and French slang. The best jokes were so good that it wouldn’t be fair to spoil them. At the end of the set, the band played their biggest audience hit, Ecole de Merde (French for “school of hard knocks”); the mostly oldschool crowd gathered around wanted an encore, and they got one.

Tri-State Conspiracy seemed to have created the most spontaneous dancing of any of the Atlantic Avenue bands. Their crowd also screamed for an encore, and got a blistering version of Blitzkrieg Bop. Before that, the band blasted through a bunch of punked out ska tunes with murderous arrangements and solos from their four-piece horn section. Among the songs: a couple of sinister Dead Kennedys-flavored minor-key tunes; an undulating, creepy number about Bush-era paranoia; the viciously scampering Toss You Right Out of My Life; a couple of old soul hits, and a twistedly evil ska tune from the band’s 2001 debut ep. Who would have thought they would have lasted this long: they were good then and they’re even better now.

But the best band of the afternoon might have been the Middle Eastern group that played for what seemed all day near the corner of Hicks Street, backing an endless parade of graceful bellydancers. Oudist and bandleader Maurice Chedid played with a casually intense, edgy virtuosity alongside a terse violinist, a keyboardist who used a quartertone accordion setting on his synth when he wasn’t giving the dancers lush sheets of orchestration to sway and bend to, over the hypnotic beat of several percussionists. With several breaks for characters from the neighborhood taking turns stepping to the mic and saying their piece, the band ran through one vintage classic after another from Lebanon and Egypt, going all the way back to the 30s. One of the organizers even took a turn in front of the band, singing an innuendo-packed ditty that would have been risque fifty years ago. It’s groups of people like this who stand to lose the most as gentrification and the corruption that comes with it sucks the individuality out of New York neighborhoods and replaces it with a Ratnerville of parking lots and 7-11s.

Chicha Libre’s Canibalismo: Best Album of 2012?

Chicha music in Peru in the 70s followed the same trajectory as the American surf music that inspired it. Along with the sounds that get pigeonholed as surf rock these days, the Ventures and Dick Dale and their contemporaries also played country, and western swing, and hotrod themes, then went through a psychedelic phase that eventually got pretty cheesy before a second wave of surf bands dove in and rescued it. Likewise, Los Destellos, Los Diablos Rojos, Los Mirlos and countless other Peruvian bands whose amazingly syncretic work has recently emerged from obscurity played a whole bunch of different styles, from straight-up rock, to electrified Andean folk, Colombian cumbias, Brazilian and Cuban-influenced styles. But by the early 80s, they’d started using Casios and digital technology, and the focus shifted to the girls shimmying onstage alongside what was left of the bands phoning in all the old vamps. Until Chicha Libre came along, brought the style north with them and introduced the rest of the world to an amazing, trippy, twangy sound that for decades had been exclusively an indigenous phenomenon.

Now the Brooklyn group leading the psychedelic cumbia revival have a new album, Canibalismo, coming out on Barbes Records (it hasn’t officially hit yet, but if you swing by Barbes, no doubt you can pick up a copy and then have a drink to celebrate the world-renowned club’s ten years in business). Even more than their classic 2008 debut, Sonido Amazonico, the new album isn’t exclusively chicha music: there’s a couple of tracks that sound like Gainsbourg, a little dub, a Mexican border pop vamp and a Santana-esque rock number. They’ve added a lot of different textures to the mix: keyboardist Josh Camp has added 80s synth and other vintage sounds along with his swirling, reverb-drenched Hohner Electrovox (a vintage synthesizer in an accordion body, marketed to a latin audience fifty years ago). Likewise, versatile guitarist Vincent Douglas gets more time in the spotlight, a very welcome development; there are even psychedelic EFX on frontman Olivier Conan’s cuatro, which essentially serves as the rhythm guitar here.

The opening track, La Plata (En Mi Carrito De Lata) sets the stage, a bouncily shuffling 2-chord chromatic vamp that gives Camp a launching pad for a million echoey keyboard settings, plus oooh-oooh backing vocals, and a disco beat pulsing from the congas and timbales. La Danza Del Millionario may have originated as a bad-guy theme written for a soundtrack to the 1921 Charlie Chaplin silent film The Idle Class: it’s a creepily direct, intense tune that puts the melody front and center rather than the effects. The downright creepiest track here is Papageno Electrico, which sounds like a Japanese surf song, reverb guitar trading on and off leads with innumerable woozy oscillating keyboard textures and equally woozy, menacingly cartoonish vocals. And the tremoloing, funereal Depresion Tropical reminds that bad times always hit the third world harder than the first

Camp contributes El Carnicero de Chicago (Chicago Butcher), a minor-key clave rock groove that builds to a sort of chicha highway anthem. The only straight-up cover here is a lickety-split version of Los Mirlos’ Muchachita Del Oriente (Asian Girl), lit up by a couple of nimble breaks by both percussionists; however, the band also nick a famous theme by Juaneco y Su Combo and turns it into a tribute to bandleader Juan Wong Popolizio, envisioning the man who lost most of his band in a tragic 1977 plane crash reunited with them in the great beyond.

The rest of the album is even more eclectic. L’Age D’Or, a slow, slinky, snide look at nostalgia has Conan doing his best Gauloise-flavored Gainsbourg rasp in his native French over electric harpsichord and echoey Electrovox. Number 17 looks back to the kitchen-sink psychedelia of Los Destellos’ classic 1971 album Constelacion (and to Henry Mancini) with its casually crescendoing trippiness, echoey vocals and absurdist lyrics (a tribute to Fermat prime numbers…all five of them). Lupita en la Selva y el Doctor is a slyly undulating tropical tribute to Albert Hoffman, who first synthesized LSD. Ride of the Valkyries is punk in spirit if not execution, revealing how incredibly cheesy and ridiculous Wagner’s original was – it has the feel of something that the bass player might have brought in at the last minute at the end of the recording session and dared his bandmates to take a stab at. The album ends with Once Tejones (Eleven Badgers), a playful shuffling anthem with boomy percussion, intricate late 60s soul guitar and some unexpectedly keening slide work.

Is this the best album of 2012? Probably. That’s not to say that any such competition between bands exists, or that it should. It’s simply to say that this album packs more pleasure and thrills than anything else released this year so far. To put it in context, it’s right up there with Raya Brass Band’s Dancing on Ashes, Dancing on Cinders, and Black Fortress of Opium’s Stratospherical. Chicha Libre are currently on South American tour; after a series of midwest US dates, they play the album release show for this one at 9 PM on May 19 at the 92YTribeca for a measly ten bucks.

And if the press release for this album is to be believed, the cumbia revolution has finally reached the fauxhemian class: the pretty boys of Animal Collective have ostensibly been spotted sashaying around Lima, flashing their parents’ credit cards and digging through musty old crates of vinyl in search of chicha treasures. But not to learn how to play the music, of course: only to sample it.