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Sarah Kirkland Snider’s Unremembered Is Hard to Forget

At its core, the myth of a happy childhood is a right-wing concept. We’re all supposed to look back nostalgically on a past that, for the majority of us, never existed, so that for old times’ sake we can allow a corrupt and outdated system that ruled back then to keep us down. If we aren’t all fondly reminiscing over hazy memories of lazy summer days, we’re somehow invalidated: we’re inferior to those who can. That’s the cornerstone of another far more evil myth, that there’s a blithely deserving class of people running the show and others less content left to do their dirty work.

The reality about childhood, from a global perspective, is something Pat Benatar sang about: Hell is for children. Then again, she also sang “Hell is for hell,” over and over again. Which, when you think about it, kind of makes sense. And is why Pat Benatar is camp, while Sarah Kirkland Snider‘s lavish double gatefold vinyl album Unremembered – streaming at Bandcamp – is a powerful and important art-rock record. It’s more of a vision of horror and terror than the personal experience of pain and torment, although those are both present in places.

With its relentless, aching atmospherics, Snider’s 2010 Penelope suite – a fearlessly feminist look at the toll war takes on the home front- earned her all sorts of high marks in the indie classical world. Her latest album is more of a rock record, like My Brightest Diamond with a slower pace and a rotating cast of singers. Which also makes sense, since MBD’s Shara Worden shares lead vocals and dazzling counterpoint with a couple of her Asthmatic Kitty housemates, songwriter DM Stith and Clogs’ Padma Newsome. Snider takes a lyric cycle by Nathaniel Bellows, chronicling a literally haunted Massachusetts upbringing, and sets it to a luminous, often otherworldly, brilliantly individualistic score played by a crack studio orchestra conducted by Edwin Outwater.

As the opening Prelude gets underway, swooping reverb-drenched vocal harmonies rise, introducing a tensely trilling suspense theme. “They circled round my head,” Worden intones coolly and enigmatically underneath. The voices diverge in counterpoint and then return, setting the stage for the rest of the record.

The ensemble segues into The Estate’s shivery, reverbtoned woodwind cadenzas beneath stately vocals and acoustic guitar. It has Snider’s trademark allusiveness but also an anthemic sensibility within the vertiginous swirl of orchestra and disembodied voices.

As The Barn opens, Worden whispers, “You are not alone, not alone, not yet,” then the orchestral stormclouds burst. It has a tumbling, percussive drive and a narrative that might involve an abduction. The Guest has more of a nebulous atmosphere and baroque vocal interplay: ‘She left our house in the dead of night, my sister went to find her, we did not know why she left, “ Worden explains, and the story grows more ominous from there.

The Slaughterhouse is surprisingly allusive as well: Snider waits til halfway through the song to develop a hypnotically circling piano motif to raise the horror level to the rafters. The menace rises higher with The Girl, an Elizabethan waltz with klezmer chromatics and echoey ascending motives filtering through the mix: it’s one of the most nonchalantly chilling, Lynchian pieces here. As is The Swan, with its blend of shifting sheets of sound and eerily minimalist Satie-esque piano, another vision of dread and death that’s bloodcurdling in its nonchalance. The Witch, the album’s most epic and gothically stylized track, circles around a creepy music-box horror riff.

The River is a surrealistically enveloping mashup of Portishead trip-hop,. broodingly offcenter cinematic ambience and coldly playful vocalese straight out of John Zorn. The Speakers, with its roomful of menacingly anthropomorphosed objects, is even more surreal, even as it’s one of the most straightforward anthems here.

For all the ambitious, Carl Nielsen-class orchestration bursting in from every corner of the sonic picture, The Orchard capsulizes how Snider works: artfully lavish arrangements, simple and catchy rock hooks. The circular variations of The Song make it the most indie classical-oriented track here. The album winds up in a wintry whirl of voices, woodwinds and reverb with The Past. something Newsome’s gracefully mannered character clearly has not made peace with, and all indications are he probably won’t. It’s the most extreme memories, for better or worse, that we carry with us.

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The 50 Best Albums of 2015

Seven or eight years ago, everyone was predicting the demise of the album. That hasn’t happened, and as long as we have recording technology, it won’t. A few other predictions from the past decade, however, have come true. Albums these days tend to be shorter, and artists are releasing fewer of them. And as a result, they’re consistently better, since acts are no longer contractually obliged to record labels to churn out product regardless of whether or not they’ve got first-class material ready to go. A couple of artists on this list are on boutique labels, but everybody else is independent.

On this page you’ll find a link to stream each album in its entirety. Whenever possible, those links are to ad-free sites like Bandcamp or Soundcloud so you can multitask in comfort without having to ride the fader to mute the ads. Considering the vast number of albums released in any calendar year, you shouldn’t regard this list as gospel. It is, however, an informed survey based on careful triage followed by a sampling of several thousand releases, and then a locked-in, analytical listen to the best 500 or so, from this past January up to the present date. A LOT of time went into this. For purposes of keeping the list under control, none of the many thousands of excellent jazz, classical and avant garde releases are represented here. Realistically, there’s a limit on how much territory a single blog can cover.

The one collection that packed the most mighty wallop – a pretty quiet one, actually – and wins the title of best album of 2015 is Who’s Counting, by Rachelle Garniez. With gallows humor, terse piano, accordion and spare acoustic guitar, it’s the New York songwriter’s shortest, most intimate and darkest album, a masterpiece of existentialist rock, grim explorations of mortality and global carnage juxtaposed with jaunty, sultry, cabaret-flavored set pieces. This is the second time a release by Garniez has topped this list: her 2007 album Melusine Years ranked #1 that year at this blog’s predecessor. Stream it at Spotify

As far as the rest of this rich crop is concerned, there’s no ranking here, since there are so many styles to choose from. Seriously: what’s better? Carol Lipnik‘s otherworldly art-rock, Twin Guns’ savage garage-punk and horror surf, or Hungrytown‘s magnificently pensive folk noir? Apples and oranges, right? These albums are all so good that they can stand alongside anything here.

Les Sans Culottes- Les Dieux Ont Soif/The Gods Are Thirsty
The New York-based faux-French rockers deliver their most satirical, bitingly hilarious, spot-on critique yet…in French, of course, with a harder, more guitar-fueled edge than the retro 60s psychedelic pop they’re known for. Stream it at Soundcloud

Regular Einstein – Chimp Haven
Velvet-voiced, wickedly lyrical janglerock songwriter Paula Carino is another artist who topped the Best Albums of the Year list at this blog’s predecessor. In her case, that release was 2010’s Open on Sunday. This is her first new one – since the 90s, in fact -with her original New York band, packed with delicious double entendres, bittersweet narratives and tricky time signatures. Stream it at Bandcamp

The Bright Smoke – Terrible Towns
Haunting singer/guitarist Mia Wilson’s full-length debut with this atmospheric, blues-infused art-rock project ranks with Joy Division for angst-fueled, white-knuckle intensity. Stream it at Bandcamp

The Sideshow Tragedy Capital
Guitarist/frontman Nathan Singleton brings a ferocious, bitterly apocalyptic lyrical sensibility to his fiery gutter-blues band. Stream it at Bandcamp

Charming Disaster – Love, Crime & Other Trouble
Jeff Morris of the phantasmagorical Kotorino and Ellia Bisker of dark chamber pop band Sweet Soubrette join forces on their debut full-length release, a lyrically and historically rich mix of murder ballads and tales of relationships gone spectacularly wrong. Stream it at Bandcamp

Carol Lipnik – Almost Back to Normal
The best album by the best singer on this list, a launching pad for her spectacular four-octave vocal range, backed by luminous, hypnotic piano from Matt Kanelos and strings by Jacob Lawson. Allusive apocalyptic themes of natural and manmade disaster and post-9/11 terror linger in the distance. Stream it at Mermaidalley.com

Ember Schrag – The Folkadelphia Sessions
Hypnotically Beatlesque art-rock, smoldering Macbeth-inspired narratives and a killer Great Plains gothic anthem by the style’s most lyrical and distinctive practitioner. Stream and download it free from the Folkadelphia page

Twin Guns – The Last Picture Show
A mighty leap for the ferocious power trio, including but not limited to their Cramps-style stomp. This one’s a lot more psychedelic and noir surf-oriented. Stream it at Bandcamp

Lorraine Leckie & Pavel Cingl – The Raven Smiled
Spare and surreal yet majestically enveloping art-rock and Slavic folk noir sounds from the Canadian gothic songstress and Czech violin wizard. Stream it at Bandcamp

Rachel Mason – The Lives of Hamilton Fish
One of the darkest albums on this list, this lush, evocative mix of historically-inspired janglerock and folk noir traces the seeemingly unconnected lives of two early 20th century figures who shared the same name: a serial killer and the scion of a famous New York political legacy. Stream it at Bandcamp

King Raam – A Day & a Year
A majestic, brooding Iranian art-rock record by the pseudonymous expat baritone crooner and bandleader. Lyrics in Persian. Stream it at Soundcloud

Fernando Viciconte – Leave the Radio On
The noir rock bandleader originally hails from Argentina; this haunted, doomed concept album, with significant contributions from REM’s Peter Buck and others, could be the great lost Steve Wynn release. Stream it at Bandcamp

Litvakus– Raysn: The Music of Jewish Belarus
A rousing, exhilarating mix of rare Jewish dance numbers,lively originals and morose folk tunes from the badlands of Polesia, in the corner where Belarus, Poland, Latvia and the Ukraine meet. One of the best party albums on this list. Stream it at Bandcamp

Raya Brass Band – Raya
Another awesome party album, the third release by the New York Balkan group is their most original, stylistically and emotionally diverse one yet, incorporating Ethiopian and latin sounds into their rapidire chromatics. Stream it at Bandcamp

Tipsy Oxcart – Upside Down
A fat rock rhythm section anchors these deliriously edgy minor-key Balkan, Turkish and Jewish themes and originals. Stream it at Bandcamp

Marianne Dissard – Cologne Vier Takes
The southwestern gothic/art-rock chanteuse and bandleader at the top of her uneasy game, in a mix of richly atmospheric yet intimate versions from her darkly lyrical catalog. Lyrics in French. Stream it at Bandcamp

Tom Warnick & the World’s Fair – Side Effects
The well-loved noir rock cult figure turns in a characteristically diverse mix of ghoulabilly, noir swing, soul and blues, all with his signature black humor and a luridly smoky band behind him. Stream it at Spotify

Matt Keating – This Perfect Crime
Getting away with murder is the loosely interconnecting theme on this typically diverse blend of janglerock, Stonesy stomp, Americana and soul-infused sounds, all with Keating’s richly sardonic, literate lyricism. Stream it at Mattkeating.com

Tracy Island – War No More
The long-awaited full-length debut from captivating singer/multi-instrumentalist Liza Garelik Roure – former leader of deviously psychedelic popsters Liza & the WonderWheels – is her catchiest and most pensively colorful yet, fueled by husband Ian Roure’s sizzling lead guitar. Stream it at Lizasongs.com

Bliss Blood & Al Street – Unspun
The iconic noir torch song heroine builds lowlit, lurid, delectably lyrical ambience in an intimate duo recording with her longtime flamenco-inspired six-string guy. Stream it at Bandcamp

Orphan Jane – A Poke in the Eye
Deviously witty, creepy noir cabaret and circus rock from this irrepressibly theatrical, Brecht/Weill-inspired New York crew. Stream it at Bandcamp

The Universal Thump – Walking the Cat
Famously recorded at Abbey Road Studios, frontwoman/keyboardist Greta Gertler has never written with greater wit or purist pop chops than she does here with her lush chamber pop/art-rock project. Stream it at Bandcamp

Sarah Kirkland Snider – Unremembered
The most lavishly orchestrated album on this list features vocals from Padma Newsome and Shara Worden throughout a mix of brooding, sweeping art-rock reflections on harrowing childhood experiences and similar trauma. Stream it at Bandcamp

Goddess – Paradise
The latest release by the phantasmagorical New York art-rock band captures them in creepily enveloping psychedelic mode. Stream it at Bandcamp

Bobtown – A History of Ghosts
Eerie, sepulcural Appalachian folk tunes, creepy newgrass, retro soul, murder ballads, black humor galore and exquisite four-part harmonies from the band that might be the best folk noir act around. Stream it at Bobtownmusic.com

Mike RimbaudPut That Dream in Your Pipe and Smoke It
Yet another provocative, surrealistically lyrical, tight powerpop and retro new wave record from one of the most fearlessly funny, spot-on chroniclers of post-9/11 global society anywhere. Stream it at Spotify

Hungrytown – Further West
The most elegantly arranged and arguably best album by poignant Americana songstress Rebecca Hall and multi-instrumentalist Ken Anderson’s plaintive folk noir band Stream it at Spotify

The Sway Machinery – Purity & Danger
One of the great guitar albums on this list, this richly textured, intricately arraanged, soaring collection of anthems sees the band venturing further from desert rock toward cantorially-inspired psychedelia. Stream it at Spotify

The TarantinosNYC – Surfin’ the Silver Screen
Catchy, fun, vividly cinematic surf rock, spy themes and psychedelic soul from one of NYC’s most original instrumental units. Stream it at Spotify

Dalava – their debut album
Guitar polymath Aram Bajakian and his haunting singer wife Julia Ulehla combine to reinvent stark traditional Moravian themes with an electric edge. Stream it at Bandcamp  

Patricia Santos – Never Like You Think
The auspicious, intense, eclectic soul-infused debut by the charismatic cello rocker and Kotorino member. Stream it at Bandcamp

Eleni Mandell – Dark Lights Up
Los Angeles noir soul, bittersweet torch song and Americana by an icon of dark retro songcraft. Stream it at Spotify

The Whiskey Charmers – their debut album
Twin Peaks C&W, Appalachian gothic, dark blues and jangly rock from this shadowy, female-fronted Detroit dark Americana band. Stream it at Thewhiskeycharmers.com

Figli di Madre Ignota – Bellydancer
High-energy, Gogol Bordello-esque circus rock and Romany punk songs with hilarious, satirical lyrics in Italian and English. Stream their “spaghetti Balkan” sounds at Soundcloud

The Frank Flight Band – The Usual Curse
The British counterpart to Blue Oyster Cult reach back into the vaults for this haunted mix of Doorsy art-rock, shapeshifting psychedelia and unexpectedly macabre gothic sounds. Stream it at cdbaby

Dawn Oberg – Bring
The irrepressible parlor pop pianist/chanteuse at the top of her sardonic, lyrically rich game in this mix of personality portraits and psychopathological analysis. Stream it at Dawnoberg.com

Jennifer Hall – her debut ep
An intriguing, auspicious mashup of noir soul and art-rock from the powerfully nuanced Chicago song stylist and her excellent, eclectic band. Stream it at Spotify

The Grasping Straws – their debut album
Edgy songwriter/guitarist Mallory Feuer’s snarling, hard-hitting, scruffy, defiantly lyrical first full-length effort goes in a more straightforward, less jazz-inspired direction than the band’s initial ep. Stream it at Bandcamp

Ben Von Wildenhaus– II
Southwestern gothic, slinky bellydancer noir themes and Twin Peaks atmospherics from the loopmusic guitar master and esteemed noir soundscaper. Stream it at Soundcloud

Naked Roots Conducive – Sacred521
Cellist Valerie Kuehne and violinist Natalia Steinbach’s tormentedly cinematic, surrealistically intense art-rock dives menacingly and blackly amusingly into themes of alienation and ahwer despair. Stream it at Bandcamp

Lions – their debut ep
A slinky, trippy mix of Ethiopian grooves, Israeli stoner rock jams and cinematic themes. Stream it at Bandcamp

George Usher & Lisa Burns – The Last Day of Winter
Intense, autumnal purist powerpop, blue-eyed soul and psych-pop tunesmithing from two highly regarded, veteran songcrafters. Stream it at Spotify

Banda de los Muertos – their debut album
Epic, ornate, richly arranged, reinvented Mexican brass band ranchera themes and sweepingly majestic, blazing originals from trombonist Jacob Garchik’s imaginative big brass ensemble. Stream it at Spotify 

Spanglish Fly – New York Boogaloo
A hard-hitting, wickedly arranged, cleverly crafted update on classic 60s salsa soul from this irrepressible, danceable, psychedelic New York outfit. Stream it at Bandcamp

Curtis Eller & the New Town Drunks – Baudelaire in a Box: Songs of Anguish
Intriguing new translations of classic, surrealistically creepy Baudelaire poems set to starkly bluesy, phantasmagorical tunes by the charismatic circus rock bandleader and the Eastern Seaboard noir group. Stream it at Bandcamp

Elisa Flynn – My Henry Lee
The darkly eclectic songwriter and hauntingly luminous chanteuse’s most spare, terse album blends starkly funny individualist anthems with more pensive material and a classic murder ballad. Stream it at Bandcamp

Fireships – their debut album
Imaginatively arranged Americana rock and chamber pop with a fearlessly aware, Dylanesque, populist lyricism. Stream it at Bandcamp

The Amphibious Man – Witch Hips
Enigmatically lo-fi, twistedly Lynchian, surf-tinged reverb rock. Like nothing else on this list and yet in a way like an awful lot on this list, in terms of general darkness. Stream it at Bandcamp

The Honeycutters – Me Oh My
Oldschool female-fronted honkytonk with a newschool, sharply literate, defiantly populist lyrical edge. Stream it at Spotify

The Old Ceremony – Sprinter
Folk noir and serpentine, intricately arranged, Lynchian art-rock and chamber pop from Django Haskins’ darkly eclectic band. Stream it at youtube – but BE CAREFUL – a loud audio starts immediately when you click the link, mute the sound before you do

For more yummy clickbait, other 2015 lists here include the forthcoming playlist at the Best Songs of 2015 page and the Best New York Concerts of 2015 page.

Brooklyn Rider’s Latest Album Capsulizes Their Paradigm-Shifting Sound

For the past few years, Brooklyn Rider have pushed the envelope pretty much as far as a string quartet can go, and in the process have raised the bar for other groups: they transcend any preconception about what serious composed music is all about. Their latest album, The Brooklyn Rider Almanac – streaming at Spotify – is their most ambitious effort yet, and may well be the one that most accurately captures what the group is all about. They draw on a wide composer base, including their own members, an A-list of mostly New York-based players and writers across the musical spectrum, from indie classical to Americana to rock and now even jazz.

It’s also a dance album in many respects – pianist/flutist Diana Wayburn‘s similarly eclectic Dances of the World Chamber Orchestra also comes to mind. Beyond the rhythms – everything from funky grooves to waltzes and struts and the hint of a reel or a stately English dance – dynamics are everything here. The pieces rise and fall and shift shape, often with a cinematic arc. The first track is Rubin Kodheli‘s Necessary Henry!, the group – violinists Johnny Gandelsman and Colin Jacobsen, violist Nicholas Cords and cellist Eric Jacobsen – establishing an ominous/dancing dichotomy out of a stormy intro. It may have originally been written for Kodheli’s snarlingly majestic cello metal band Blues in Space.

Maintenance Music, by Dana Lyn shifts from a lustrous fog with distant echoes of Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here to a slow waltz and then a chase scene – it’s the most cinematic piece here. Simpson’s Gap, by Clogs‘ Padma Newsome makes a good segue, an Appalachian ballad given bulk and heft with fluttering echoes, as if bouncing off the mountain walls and down into the valley below.

The Haring Escape, by saxophonist Daniel Cords veers from swaying, echoing funk, to slowly shifting resonance, to an aggressive march. Aoife O’Donovan’s Show Me is akin to something Dvorak would have pieced together out of a gentle Hudson Valley dance. Jazz pianist Vijay Iyer‘s Dig the Say gives the quartet a  theme and variations to work, a study in counterrythms, funky vamps bookending a resonantly atmospheric interlude.

There are two pieces by indie rock drummers here. Deerhoof’s Greg Saunier – most recently witnessed  trying his best to demolish the house kit at Glasslands a couple of weeks ago – contributes the most minimalist piece here, Wilco drummer Glenn Kotche’s Ping Poing Fumble Thaw being more pointillistic. The album continues on a kinetic path from here until the very end, through Ethan Iverson‘s Morris Dance – which blends contrastingly furtive and calm themes – then Colin Jacobsen’s Exit, with Shara Worden on vocals, a triumphantly balletesque, swirling, rather Reichian piece. The most rhythmically emphatic number here is by Gonazlo Grau, leader of explosive psychedelic salsa band La Clave Secreta. After Christina Courtin’s raptly atmospheric Tralala, the quartet ends with a warmly measured, aptly pastoral take of John Steinbeck, by Bill Frisell.

My Brightest Diamond Bring Their Lush, Kinetic Art-Rock to Bowery Ballroom

Is Shara Worden the female Peter Gabriel? Consider: her songs are serious and meticulously put together, but also quirky and fun. In concert, she loves costumes and wry theatrics. And she’s an accomplished composer of indie classical music. Then there’s the matter of that exquisite voice (Worden also gets props for teaching Elisa Flynn – one of the best folk noir songwriters of recent years – how to unleash a similarly luminous voice). Worden and her kinetic, woodwind-driven art-rock band My Brightest Diamond have a new album, This Is My Hand – streaming at NPR – and a monster world tour coming up, with a stop at Bowery Ballroom on Sept 25 at 9. Advance tix are $20 and very highly recommended.

.While the album traces the arc of a doomed romance, the music is usually anything but gloomy. Worden may be best known as a singer, but she’s an elite songwriter, the songs here veering between seamlessly polished, new wave-inflected pop and gusty art-rock. Flurries of marching band drum rudiments, punchy horn charts and bubbly woodwind flourishes punctuate Worden’s pensive yet kinetic tunesmithing.

She channels her inner soul sister on the album’s opening track, Pressure, an emphatically bouncy tune that contrasts tinkly keys with a bluesy synth bassline, rising to an unexpected ending. With a playfulness that brings to mind Nicole Atkins, Before the Words is sort of a triumph of the organic over the techy and cheesy, the orchestra mounting a sneak attack on the woozy keybs and eventually taking over.

Worden’s ripe, wounded vocals and imagistic lyrics bring to mind another great art-rocker, Serena Jost, on the title track: after a rousing orchestral coda, the way that Worden backs off just a hair when she gets to the song’s punchline will give you goosebumps. On the trickly rhythmic, new wave-ish Lover Killer, Worden hitches an ominous lyric to perky brass and a funky rhythm section that gets funkier as it goes along.

A mashup of Philly soul and indie classical, I Am Not the Bad Guy is the album’s most minimalist number: midway through, she runs her vocals through a watery Leslie speaker effect for extra menace. The contrasts continue throughout Looking At the Sun, knottily kinetic verse paired off with a soaring, lush chorus, the music perfectly matching the push-pull tension of Worden’s lyrics. The album’s longest song, Shape is a kaleidoscope of polyrhythms, keys and vocal overdubs: “You never know how I may appear, first time unlike the wind, next time like a storm,” warns Worden. “I know prismatic!” is the tag out of the chorus – and does she ever!

So Easy brings to mind glossy 80s pop bands like ABC, juxtaposing echoey electric piano, chilly string synths and a dancing pulse against Worden’s angst-fueled narrative. Resonance sounds like an artsy update on a well-worn Soft Cell theme, with more tricky rhythms, big orchestral swells and layers of vocal harmonies. The album ends with its darkest, most ethereal song, Apparition: “You were a spoiled child, your careless hand is dropping,” Worden accuses. “The leaves will smoke with perfumed stars.” It’s a powerful payoff, considering all the angst that’s been building up to it.

Lincoln Center Out of Doors Kicks Off with an Eclectic Triplebill

[repost from NY Music Daily’s sister blog Lucid Culture]

The Kronos Quartet are celebrating their fortieth anniversary this year, so it makes sense that the beginning of this year’s Lincoln Center Out of Doors festival – one of the best ever – would be centered around that landmark occasion. The world’s most adventurous string quartet have an auspicious new cellist, Sunny Yang (replacing Jeffrey Ziegler) and their usual slate of premieres and new commissions. Even by their paradigm-shifting standards, their world premiere of Ukraine-born Mariana Sadovska’s Chernobyl: The Harvest – with the composer on vocals and harmonium – last night at the Damrosch Park bandshell was nothing short of shattering,  It’s a suite of old Ukrainian folk songs reinvented to commemorate the horror of the 1986 nuclear disaster, which by conservative standards killed at least a million people around the globe and caused the breakup of the Soviet Union, the world’s second-greatest power at the time.

Singing in Ukrainian, Sadovska began it a-cappella with her signature nuance, a thousands shades of angst, sometimes barely breathing, sometimes at a fullscale wail, occasionally employing foreboding microtones to max out the menace. Violist Hank Dutt got the plum assignment of leading the ensemble to join her, Yang’s foreboding drone underpinning a series of up-and-down, Julia Wolfe-esque motives. Quavering, anxious Iranian-tinged flutters from the cello along with violinists David Harrington and John Sherba, astringently atmospheric harmonics and a big, uneasy crescendo, the harmonium going full steam, built to a savagely sarcastic faux circus motif and then a diabolical dance. That was the harvest, a brutal portrayal whose ultimate toll is still unknown. Through a plaintive theme and variations, Sadovska’s voice rose methodically from stunned horror to indignance and wrath: again, the triptych’s final theme, Heaven, appeared to be sarcastic to the extreme, Sadovska determined not to let the calamity slip from memory. Nuclear time forgives much more slowly than time as we experience it: 26 years after the catastrophe, wild mushrooms in Germany – thousands of miles from the disaster scene – remain inedible, contaminated with deadly nuclear toxins.

In a counterintuitive stroke of booking, luminous singer Shara Worden’s kinetic art-rock octet, My Brightest Diamond headlined. They’re like the Eurythmics except with good vocals and good songs – hmmm, that doesn’t leave much, does it? Or like ELO during their momentary lapse into disco, but better. Sh-sh-sh-sh-Shara can get away with referencing herself in a song because she does it with tongue planted firmly in cheek, and because she’s as funny as she can be haunting. She loves props and costumes – a big cardboard moustache and a fez among them, this time out – and draws on a wide-ranging musical drama background. But she saves the drama for when she really needs to take a song over the edge, belting at gale force in contrast to a fat, droll synth bass pulse late in the show. Her lively arrangements rippled through the ensemble of Hideaki Aomori on alto sax, Lisa Raschiatore on clarinet and bass clarinet, CJ Cameriere on trumpet, Michael Davis on trombone and Alex Sopp on flutes, like the early/middle-period Moody Blues as orchestrated by Carl Nielsen. Sopp’s triumphant cadenzas capped off several big crescendos, as did Aomori on the second number, a circus rock song with dixieland flourishes. Worden brought the energy down to pensive for a bit, crooning with a low, ripe, Serena Jost-like intensity and playing Rhodes piano on a hypnotic trip-hop number. Worden switched to minimal but assured electric guitar on a slow, pensive tune and then a warm, gently arpeggiated love song, then to mbira on a similarly hypnotic but bouncier Afro-funk song. “A girl from the country had a dream, and the best place she could think of was here,” Worden beamed to the packed arena as she wound up the night. “We’re living the dream.”

Emily Wells was lost in limbo between the two. The smoky patterns on the kaleidoscopic light show projected behind her on the back of the stage offered more than a hint of the milieu she’s best suited to. It was a cruel if probably unintentional stroke of fate that stuck Wells, a competent singer, between two brilliant ones. Her music is quirky, playful and trippy to the extreme. Wells can be very entertaining to watch, when she’s building songs out of loops, adding layers of vocals, keys and violin, switching between instruments and her mixing board with split-second verve. But as her set – the longest one of the night – went on, it became painfully obvious that she wasn’t doing much more than karaoke. She sang her dubwise, trippy hip-hop/trip-hop/soul mashups in what became a monotonously hazy soul-influenced drawl without any sense of dynamics. Where Sadovska sang of nuclear apocalypse and Worden tersely explored existential themes, the best Wells could do was a Missy Elliott-ish trip-hop paean to Los Angeles. And when she addressed the crowd, Wells seemed lost, veering between a southern drawl and something like an Irish brogue. But the audience LOVED her, and gave her the most applause of anyone on the bill.

Lincoln Center Out of Doors is phenomenal this year: the Kronos Quartet will be there tomorrow and then Sunday night. The full calendar is here.

Freebies from New Amsterdam Records

How about some free music from one of the most cutting-edge labels around? Starting December 5 at 10 AM, New Amsterdam Records will be putting up a new album every day for the following five days for free download. December 5’s album will be Sarah Kirkland Snider’s excellent Penelope album, a lushly uneasy avant garde antiwar suite told from the point of view of Odysseus’ wife, with Shara Worden of My Brightest Diamond on vocals. The label is keeping mum on what else is in the pipeline: you’ll have to hit their fundraising page every day in order to find out.

The reason they’re doing this is to sweeten the pot for their DIY Kickstarter-style fundraising campaign: on the high end, ten grand gets you dinner with Kirkland Snider plus her co-directors William Brittelle and Judd Greenstein, plus a private concert featuring a label artist at a location of your choice within 2 hours of NYC, plus a thank-you in the liner notes on all 2012 NA releases, plus VIP admission to all the label’s artists’ concerts in 2012, plus the label’s full back catalog, plus all kinds of autographed stuff. Obviously, there are plenty of other rewards for considerably less than five figures.

What’s impressive here is that unlike a whole lot of other labels, New Amsterdam has figured out that people aren’t willing to buy a pig in a poke anymore: music fans want to hear what it is they’re being asked to purchase. And it goes without saying that if you like, say, the new yMusic album – one of the label’s 2011 highlights – on mp3, you’ll REALLY like how the cd sounds.

Now if they’d only do vinyl…

Mighty, Majestic 19th Century Rock Songs from Elisa Flynn

Elisa Flynn’s 2009 album Songs About Birds and Ghosts was a stark, moody collection of literate rock songs. The production went for a scruffy, jangly acoustic-electric feel, but the tunes sometimes reached toward a towering majesty, particularly the opening cut, Timber, a genuine 21st century classic (watch the video, a wry Blair Witch parody, here). So the question that screamed out was what if Flynn decided to go all the way and give her songs an epic grandeur rather than simply hinting at it? That’s exactly what she’s done with her latest release, 19th Century Songs, and that’s why it might be the best rock album of the year.

Flynn is a one-woman orchestra, playing all the guitars and keys, backed by an alternately mighty and elegant rhythm section of Mark Ospovat (who also produced) on bass and Anders Griffen on drums. Sometimes she unleashes a swirling dreampop cyclotron, other times a savage roar, often both at once: some of this music is the bastard genius child of My Bloody Valentine and the Throwing Muses. Flynn’s vocals on Songs About Birds and Ghosts were gripping – here they are exquisite. She’s always been a good singer – she’s a student of Shara Worden, something that pretty much gives her instant cred – but at this point Flynn has reached the point where she may have surpassed her teacher. And that’s not to disrespect My Brightest Diamond’s frontwoman, a powerful and dynamic presence, but simply to say that Flynn can pack more wallop into a single, wounded bent note than most people can with an entire album.

The lyrics explore historical themes, allusively: they’re sung from an eyewitness point of view, often without directly referencing a particular incident or time period, which makes them all the more interesting. The opening track, Close Your Eyes, once again is the real stunner here, pairing off the drama and intensity of the verse against a gentler, watery chorus straight out of the Lush playbook from around 1989. Is this song about the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair murders by serial killer H. H. Holmes?  Maybe. 19th Century Breakup Song follows a more predictable trajectory, building up to the chorus, like the Walkabouts if they’d been from Brooklyn instead of Seattle. Flynn’s wary, nuanced voice contrasts with the raw power of the guitars: on an all-too-brief solo, she fires off a series of biting octaves while Ospovat slinks behind her in the shadows.

The third track, Eliza Donner, evokes Siouxsie & the Banshees, ominous guitar rising and falling above Griffen’s menacing, funereal drums. “Does He watch us like we’re figures in a snow globe?” the doomed woman asks, hope slowly turning to dread. “I can’t hear you talking but I hear the wind laughing at me.” The next song, Fram, seems to be a seafaring epic, a surreal torrent of sinister imagery, its narrator “cutting into ice for weeks and months” over a backdrop of intricate fingerpicking. Flynn goes back to Siouxsie-esque with Poor Little Lamb, the most exhilarating song here, carnivalesque organ fluttering behind the wall of guitars for extra menace. Midway through, when a completely evil dreampop bridge leaps out from behind the central riff, the effect is literally breathtaking. The album closes with the pensive, gothic folk tune William Tecumseh Sherman, a soldiers-eye view of the Civil War where “the blackest days have shown themselves” and southerners (or is it all the soldiers?) “lay down their lives for twisted dreams of older men.” The CD comes with a “lovely hand-crafted cover, 3 prints, and a 1″ pin,” for six bucks at Flynn’s bandcamp, where you can hear and also download the whole thing.