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Tag: snow band

Elegant, Unpredictably Fun Oldtime Swing Sounds at Barbes This Thursday

As far back as the late 90s, Daria Grace had established herself as one of the most distinctively melodic and consistently interesting bass players in the New York rock and Americana scenes. From her work with art-rockers Melomane to country hellraisers the Jack Grace Band, she would always find an opening on the low end that would give her a chance to be just as adrenalizing as all the soloing and mayhem overhead.

But Grace also plays other four-stringed instruments – and 88-keyed instruments, as she revealed with a rare appearance on organ at a recent Long Island City show with Pat Irwin‘s cinematic band. Yet these days she’s better known as a singer than for her instrumental prowess.

Since the late zeros, she’s fronted the playful oldtimey swing band, the Pre-War Ponies, where she plays baritone ukulele and covers all kinds of charming, often very obscure repretoire from the 20s to the 40s. For awhile she was running her axe through a bunch of pedals for many unexpected textures, but lately she and the band have taken a more trad approach to the songs. The Pre-War Ponies have had an ongoing monthly residency at Barbes for several years; their next gig is Nov 8 at 8 PM followed at 10 by furry-suited, xylophone-driven oldtimey swing busker legends the Xylopholks.

Grace has been chronicled on this page on several occasions. The last couple of times this blog was in the house for her Barbes residency was back in February when she opened for the electrifying Bollywood-influenced Bombay Rickey, and then this past June. Typically, the two consistent members of the cast are Grace and her longtime trombomist (and frequent uke sparring partner), J. Walter Hawkes. If you’re lucky, you’ll catch them with the great Willie Martinez – the original drummer in Big Lazy – behind the kit. One of the band’s favorite songs is an old mambo, Amapola – ostensibly dedicated to an opium poppy, hmmmm – and Martinez always gets a juicy rumble going with that one

Otherwise, the material at those two shows ranged from the obscure – the bubbliest suicide song ever written, and the irresistible Moon Over Brooklyn, which other than a couple of lines could be Moon Over Marin, or Moon Over Staten Island – to energetic takes of standards like Take All of Me. Grace’s plush, subtle voice always finds quieter openings to add nuance, and Hawkes will use any opportunity to squall and spiral and bring down the house.

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.

Elegantly Drifting Art-Rock from the Snow at Union Hall

For Pierre de Gaillande to be playing in just two bands means he must be busy with other things – there was a point when he was playing art-rock with Melomane, and the Snow, and doing more of an indie thing in Morex Optimo, and also getting his Bad Reputation project, which does English-language versions of Georges Brassens songs, off the ground. Last night at Union Hall, de Gaillande and co-bandleader/keyboardist Hilary Downes led the Snow through a haunting, somewhat stripped-down set of material from throughout the band’s career. To the songs’ credit, they sounded practically as lush with just acoustic guitar, keys, violin and trumpet as they do in their more lavish studio guise.

The show opened on a quietly intense, brooding note with Russians, a snidely allusive look back at the less desirable aftereffects of perestroika: “Mama I’m home, mama I’m sick, I ate too much candy, sucked too much liquor,” went the punchline. The band ended it with a long, creepy walk down the scale, ending with a single ominously sustained spaghetti western guitar chord. They followed that with a new song, a slow, steady, nocturnal art-rock ballad sung by Downes. True Dirt, an elegant chamber pop tune about getting messy – metaphorically, at least – kicked off with a big flamencoesque trumpet/guitar intro.

Downes sang the melancholy, metaphorically bristling Undertow with a richly nuanced, Julie London torchiness over the steady insistence of the guitar, the trumpet adding an unexpected jauntiness. They followed with a late Beatlesque art-folk ballad, its distantly aching atmosphere enhanced by Karl Meyer’s austere violin lines.

But everything wasn’t so serious. Union Hall for some reason has become a magnet for amusing cover bands – there’ll be a couple doing twisted  Hall & Oates and Dionne Warwick covers here on Halloween – and in keeping with that theme, Downes hammed it up – but just a little – by closing with a surprisingly plaintive version of Olivia Newton-John’s Hopelessly Devoted to You. Whatever you might think of ex-model pop singers, John Farrar – who wrote most of ONJ’s songs -wasn’t a bad tunesmith. It says a lot about the Snow that they’d be able to make something substantial out of one of them.

Dark, Direct, Smart Retro Rock from Whitehorse

Whitehorse is Luke Doucet and Melissa McClelland. Together they make eclectic, dark garage rock which might seem like a contradiction in terms until you consider what an excellent, diverse guitarist Doucet is. Which makes it no surprise that there are numerous other genres on their album. It opens with a meandering spoken-word number set to a Marc Ribot-style noir guitar interlude that goes spiraling with a flamenco feel. Those are just two styles in Doucet’s arsenal, and they don’t return until a reprise at the end. In between there’s a lot of bluesiness, a ton of reverb and lots of vocal harmonies. Both Doucet and McClelland are strong singers, harmonizing much like the Snow’s Pierre de Gaillande and Hilary Downes.

With its simple stomping beat and lo-fi vibe, Killing Time Is Murder could be the White Stripes with brains. Emerald Isle could do without the stream-of-consciousness lyrical torrents, but the noir rockabilly tune is cool, not just because it has a glockenspiel. Passenger 24 goes back to punk-blues stomp that distantly evokes the Cramps, McClelland’s passenger high on coke alongside a “hopped-up driver chasing the moon.”

If commercial played good songs, Broken would be a monster hit (is there a college radio station where you are? Are they playing this track to death? They should be). It’s a wickedly catchy country tune disguised as backbeat rock, with a vicious duet that does justice to a Blood on the Tracks reference. “You’ve got to have a heart to have a broken one,” Doucet snarls, “I need a girl like you like a hole in the head.” The album winds up with a torchy, oldtime-flavored swing duet, McClelland’s lurid vocals backed by noir atmospherics from the organ and steel guitar. The only miss here is a pointless cover of Springsteen’s easy-listening hit I’m On Fire, which isn’t as annoying as the original but it’s pretty close. With originals as good as the rest of the tracks here, who needs covers?

Kotorino’s Broken Land – One of This Past Year’s Best Albums

Brooklyn band Kotorino play darkly elegant, trippy, gypsy-flavored “parlor rock” with carnivalesque touches. It’s astonishing that their most recent album Broken Land hasn’t gotten more press than it has: there’s a huge audience out there who will love this record (this blog didn’t yet exist when it came out about a year ago). There are other bands who work the same territory – Oregon gypsy band Fishtank Ensemble, in their quieter moments, or fellow Brooklyn chamber-rock band the Snow – but Kotorino’s sound is unique. Often their lead instrument is Stefan Zeniuk’s clarinet or bass clarinet, other times it’s a singing saw. Frontman Jeff Morris’ guitar gives some of the songs a slinky tango vibe; then he’ll play with a slide, adding a rustic, nocturnal, bluesy edge, or switch to pump organ. Onstage, the band members all switch and play each others’ instruments, adding a level of mystery here as to who’s playing what – drummer Jerome Morris on guitar? Could be. Harmony singer Amy Morris and violinist Molly White add to the lush, low-key ambience, joining voices conspiratorially over accordionist Nicki Pfoutz’s plaintive chords.

The album kicks off with a tango vibe enhanced by White’s stark violin accents and a nicely layered horn arrangement. The second track, Little Boat goes for an understated unease which bobs to the surface again and again throughout the album. It’s a metaphorically-loaded escape anthem: “Sitting there with my myserious frown, Mona Lisa turned upside down,” explains Jeff Morris as his craft loses sight of shore, a torchy chromatic harp solo raising the apprehension another notch. Under the Moon sounds like the Snow playing dub reggae; the next track, Hawaii, drenched in dreamy steel guitars, could be El Radio Fantastique covering the Moonlighters. It’s a shipwreck survivor’s tale, with what seems to be an unexpectedly happy ending.

The best song on the album is Sky’s on Fire, an ominous banjo tune with a casually chilling violin solo that underscores its narrator’s madness: “From a butterfly to a hurricane, there’s a sky in my eye, it’s on fire,” Jeff Morris intones quietly. They go back to reggae – and a surreal, woozy carousel interlude – with Paris Underground, then Dangle Tango builds a series of suspenseful crescendos around a would-be suicide’s tale:

Angels are circling my head
Flying sweetly round and round
I feel like old King Kong
As I try to knock them down

The slow, singing saw sway of Oh My God – a metaphorical tale of flying off in a balloon – is irresistibly romantic. They close the album with the title track, a bluesy 6/8 steampunk anthem for a bucolic Brooklyn of the mind in some alternate future. Kotorino choose their gigs wisely: watch this space for upcoming live dates.