New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: soul-pop

Soul Singer Alice Lee’s Long-Awaited New Album: One of 2017’s Catchiest, Most Lyrically Searing Releases

Back in the mid-zeros, soul singer Alice Lee was one of the most distinctive and individualistic artists in what was a thriving Lower East Side and Brooklyn music scene. She remains one of the most eclectic tunesmiths to emerge from there, blending jazz sophistication, trippy downtempo ambience, and a little slashing punk-funk or downtown guitar skronk into her uneasy, picturesque songs. This blog’s predecessor picked her 2005 release Lovers and Losers as one of the thousand best albums of all time. That one was sort of a mashup of Nina Simone and Fiona Apple.

In the years since then, gentrification continued to blight neighborhoods across the city, and Lee was one of the thousands driven out by the luxury-condo blitzkrieg. These days she’s been dividing her time between here and Guatemala, continuing to play her own music as well as tropicalia and jazz throughout Central America. Now, she finally has a new album, The Wheel – streaming at Bandcamp – and a a show coming on on May 25 at 9 PM Pete’s Candy Store, one of the few remaining venues that she played back in the day that’s still open.

Although there’s great elegance and nuance in her voice on these songs, the overall atmosphere is sobering and defiantly angry. Much of the material is awash in regret; the album’s best songs are searing narratives of 99-percenter struggles. She kicks things off with a swinging, lo-fi guitar-and-vocal jazz miniature, These Foolish Things: it’s over in a heartbeat, just like the affair it commemorates. The wickedly anthemic, trip-hop-tinged Where Are You My Love, a longtime concert favorite, captures Lee in the studio circa 2003 on electric piano, with Yuval Gabay on drums and Lee’s longtime producer, Pere Ubu and No Grave Like the Sea mastermind Tony Maimone on bass.David Johnson’s tersely biting Spanish guitar solo midway through matches the bittersweetness and longing in Lee’s voice as it finally rises at the end.

Most of the rest of the songs here feature Mark Schwartz on bass and Alejandro Vega on drums, with Maimone on the four-string on a handful of tracks. The blockbuster cut is the resolutely insistent Your Blues, an anthem for the era of Ferguson and Eric Garner, Lee doubletracking her blippy, distorted electric piano and judiciously resonant electric guitar:

Bend your life, break your back
For a system that bruises you
Twenty lashes in jail
When it fails you, accuses you
Don’t exist in the eyes of the law
They can do with you as they please
You stand up for yourself
And they bring you to your knees
Can’t look me in the eye
As you take your shot
The blood on your hands
Will come out in the wash
How can you stand by
Watch your brother fall and suffer
At the hands of another
How far are we from done
From disconnect and thinking we’re the only ones

Another electric piano groove, Letter to No One revisits the surreal, restless nocturnal vibe of much of Lovers & Losers:

My heart is overwhelmed
By a tide that won’t turn
I stumble forward, wondering how long
Before I wake
The key to happiness,
A secret no one else can crack
Always looking forward and
Never looking back

The album’s loopy, tricky, syncopated title track looks at the desperation of love in a time of wage slavery:

These days were meant for the dogs
You hit the blocks hard but you don’t get the job
Or you get the job but you’re full up in debt
That you spend the rest of your life trying to get ahead
…You don’t get a choice in the matter
Until you get caught

Lee revisits the theme in the briskly swinging, catchy, cynical Too Little Too Late, another big audience hit:

We go forward, two steps back
Hit play, repeat, don’t skip the track…
Watch the broken glass across the gap
Step on the line don’t let me pass the same way twice

Descent, set to an ironic downward chord progression, is Lee at her most harrowing and intense, with a creepy, tremolo-picked dreampop guitar solo:

Repetition is a curse
Save the chorus
Erase the verse
Where were you
When I was down
For the count, but not quite out
Passing ghost with no regrets
Learning to live and forget

The funky First and Sixth, another brooding nocturne, will resonate with anybody who has bittersweetly hazy memories of wee-hours hookups in what was then a (semi) affordable East Village on nights when the trains were all messed up: “Waiting on the L just out of luck, now I’m stuck at 14th St., waiting on my whiskey sour…it’s almost time for breakfast again…make no difference, hand to mouth…I don’t care if I’m the only one to get out of here alive.” This wasn’t such a long time ago, either.

Love Is a Thief, an elegant jazz waltz of sorts, dates from the early zeros and has the feel of early 60s Nina Simone blended with Velvets folk-rock: Lee plays it solo on acoustic guitar and piano. She works a psychedelically sparkling upward trajectory on the kiss-off anthem Left of Mine, brooding guitar jangle set to a funky shuffle beat. The album also includes a couple of remixes, including legendary Greenpoint producer Scotty Hard’s version of First and Sixth. It’s only May, but we may have the best album of 2017 here.

Madam West Bring Their Psychedelic Soul to Palisades: Not an April Fool Joke

Isn’t it cool when a band actually know themselves well enough to tell you what they do? You’d think that more artists would be able to do that…but a lot of times they don’t. Madam West call themselves psychedelic soul and that’s what they are. That, and danceable, and fun. On their new four-track ep, Not Pictured – a name-your-price download at Bandcamp – the group comprises singer/uke player Sophie Chernin, keyboardist Todd Martino and dummer Mike McDearmon. They’ve expanded to a five-piece for their 9:15 PM Palisades show in Bushwick on April 1 (no joke) and they sound like they bring the party live.

The album’s first track, Darlin’ has a funny video that’s sort of a Fatal Attraction spoof. The song is a vampy, bouncy thing where Chernin finally decides to take off and head for the sky about halfway through. The next song, Home starts out as a uke waltz, but then McDearmon adds a funk groove underneath. And why not – there’s such a thing as a jazz waltz, why not a funk waltz? The music-box synth tones are an unexpectedly cool touch too.

In her more stressed moments, Chernin takes on a bluesy, imploring tone that reminds of Jolie Holland. She stays closer to the ground throughout most of The End, a steady, resonant latin soul groove with some playful synth squiggles and blips. The last track is October, which fools you into thinking it’ll be a brooding waltz before Chernin’s vocal leaps and Martino’s judiciously hard-hitting chords take it in a more kinetic direction. Promising debut; hopefully more to come. More bands should be doing stuff like this: it’s fun and catchy without being bland, and you can dance to it.

Blue-Eyed Soul Band Spain Bring Their Disquieting Sounds to NYC

For the past twenty-odd years, Josh Haden’s group Spain have occupied a unique, distantly Lynchian netherworld of blue-eyed soul and moody, purist pop tunesmithing, sort of like the Eels playing Orbison – or vice versa. They’re making a rare couple of stops in NYC, first at the Lincoln Center Atrium on Jan 29 at 7:30 PM for free, early arrival being the keyword there. They’re also at Rough Trade on Feb 3 at 9 for $15.

Their fifth and latest album, Sargent Place – streaming at Spotify – features the latest incarnation of the band, with Haden on bass plus Daniel Brummel on lead guitar, Randy Kirk on keys and guitars and Matt Mayhall on drums. Textures are big with this band: for example, the way that Haden’s bass and Brummel’s guitar evoke the spare sound of a Fender Rhodes on the tersely catchy, incendiarily crescendoing opening track, Love At First Sight. There’s an actual Rhodes on the enigmatically soul-tinged, waltzing second cut, The Fighter, featuring Haden’s sister Petra on harmony vocals and strings – it wouldn’t be out of place in the Lee Feldman catalog. She reappears on the duskily smoldering, blues-drenched dirge From the Dust

It Could Be Heaven subsumes its morbidness in Chuck Prophet-style purist pop catchiness – but just barely. Sunday Morning isn’t the Velvets classic but a pretty damn good song in its own right, an insistently pulsing, troubled, vintage 60s minor-key soul strut with a savage guitar solo out.

Haden brings down the lights with the slow, balmy, gospel-tinged 6/8 soul ballad Let Your Angel and keeps the moody, churchified atmosphere going with To Be a Man. He hits a peak with the absolutely Lynchian longing and angst of In My Soul, fueled by Brummel’s eerily gleaming, reverbtoned lead lines. The hushed folk-pop lullaby You and I is sadly notable for being the final studio recording by Haden’s dad, jazz bass legend Charlie Haden. The album winds up with the simple, disarmingly direct Waking Song: “Every time I go to sleep, it’s time to wake up,” Haden relates, something for the insomniac in all of us.

A Soulful Coda for This Year’s Lincoln Center Out of Doors Festival

This year’s Lincoln Center Out of Doors festival has been one of the best ever, and the past few years have set a high standard. Sunday’s concluding show was Americana roots music, an annual tradition that goes back decades. The evening began with the impassioned, intense New York debut by a-cappella gospel trio the Como Mamas. If you were there, that was Ester Mae Smith with her raw but minutely nuanced, gravelly alto stage right, chirpy mezzo-soprano Della Daniels in the center and her sister, Angela Taylor, with her full, ripe, modulated alto to her left. The three women make Como, Mississippi’s Mt. Mariah Church their musical home, where their most recent Daptone album was recorded.

Their style of gospel has deep roots that sprang up here but ultimately look back to Africa: fans of Malian desert rock might be surprised to hear melodies much the same coming from these voices, and vice versa. It signifies like mad and transcends any specific Christian meaning – although the trio made clear that they were there to uplift and leave their very personal message of dedication to their Savior. The Como Mamas sing this raw, hypnotically vamping music as the leaders of a community sing rather than a concert, and they got plenty of clapping and a little singing out of the crowd. Smith led the group most of the time through labyrinthine polyrhythms punctuated by joyous shouts, poinpoint harmony and counterpoint as sophisticated as any classical composition. The subtext was crushing, especially in I Knew It Was the Blood, where the Crucifixion is depicted as the lynching that it truly was. Several of the other songs worked just as well in a secular context: the good God in this music is a standin for a man who isn’t cruel – or isn’t about to be sold off, or killed. Each of the group has her own distinctive style: Smith with the occasional rapidfire melisma, delivered with the same spine-tingling inflections every time; Daniels with her split-second, staccato timing and Taylor with her sometimes imploring, sometimes comforting resonance. They put to shame anyone who might get their idea of how to sing gospel from American Idol.

Motown co-writers Eddie and Brian Holland were next on the bill, along with a longtime piano sideman from their Detroit studio who backed them on brief excerpts from their Sixties pop classics when they weren’t being interviewed by the producer of a Motown-flavored musical. Tunesmith/sound engineer Brian kept very quiet, but his singer brother was game to fondly and wryly recall some of the events surrounding the songs. There wasn’t a lot of insight shed into how they were made, underscored by the fact that wordsmithing was never the Holland/Dozier/Holland brain trust’s strong suit. Eddie Holland seemed most proud of how New York producers, with their big multitrack studios, began to imitate the sound that he and the legendary Funk Brothers band created in a cramped Detroit garage basement.

Allen Toussaint, who has a new album recorded during his solo residency at Joe’s Pub last year due out from Rounder this fall, was next, playing elegant, rippling solo piano and sounding much younger than his 74 years. His glistening chords give away his classical inclinations; as a connoisseur of New Orleans piano, there’s no one more knowledgeable. When Henry Butler came on to vamp through a single cameo while Toussaint hurled Mardi Gras regalia into the crowd (including a football, which Toussaint sent on an impressive thirty-yard spiral), it was anticlimactic. Toussaint opened with There’s a Party Going On , entertained the crowd with bouncy versions of Yes We Can Can and Sneaking Sally Through the Alley along with a long medley of early 60s soul-pop hits. He showed off a dry, insightful wit with a tongue-in-cheek yuppie travelogue possibly titled Whatever Happened to Rock n Roll as well as a droll tribute to New York. He brought his hits What Do You Want the Girl to Do and Southern Nights back to their roots, with purist blues chops and lingering, summery, Debussy-esque atmospherics that had nothing to do with the Glenn Campbell mallstore radio hit. After a long romp that made boogie-woogie out of classical themes, Toussaint invited the crowd to join him on a singalong of Arlo Guthrie’s City of New Orleans: “C’mon,” he grinned, “All white folks know this one.” By now, it was past nine, headliner Bobby Rush was nowhere in sight and the storm clouds loomed closer and closer – and much as it would have been fun to stick around for the whole show, having spent the previous two nights in the park here, it was time to beat the rain. What an amazing three weeks it’s been out back in Damrosch Park!

Lakecia Benjamin Invents a Brand New Soul Sound

Ever see some generic corporate band or singer on tv and wonder to yourself if the backing musicians are content to play cliches all the time…or if they have secret lives where they pull off their masks and play real music? Saxophonist Lakecia Benjamin is one of those players. She’s toured with the kind of acts you hear in the laundromat – and also with Stevie Wonder. Last month, Motema released Retox, Benjamin’s debut album as a leader with her band Soul Squad, and it’s eclectic to the extreme, something you would expect from a musician who’s played as many styles as she has. Though drawing deeply on the classic sounds of James Brown, Maceo Parker, Sly and the Family Stone and the Meters, the album also includes several tracks that mix in a more current-day vibe. It won’t alienate those who’re satisfied with John Legend or Erykah Badu, but it’ll satisfy diehard fans of real oldschool artists from Sharon Jones to George Clinton.

It’s a blend of vocal and instrumental joints. Along with the blissfully peaceful, atmospheric Dreams, there are some serious party jams: the band’s signature, P-Funk flavored opening track, SoulSquad, which evolved out of a jam at a concert soundcheck; Maceo, a tribute to funky sax legend Maceo Parker that blends vintage JB’s with 70s P-Funk; and the horn-driven groove Get Down, a rousingly successful attempt to mix a 60s go-go feel with James Brown, right down to the fat but simple bass groove and tight, punchy horn riffs.

The rest of the tracks cover a lot of ground as well. Keep Talkin’, a casually seductive duet between Amp Fiddler and Tracey Nicole, mashes up a sweet mid 60s-style soul melody with more ambitious 70s stylings. Share My Life reaches for more of an early 90s soul/hip-hop feel, featuring airy, carefree vocals from Jacoria Marzett and a cameo from rapper Whosane over swirling, summery ambience. My Love features a nuanced, Sarah Vaughan-esque vocal by Krystle Warren, while Mavis Swan Poole sings Human Being, a hypnotically echoey jazz/funk fusion that brings to mind Digable Planets.

With its wickedly catchy hook, Jump and Shout holds nothing back, a driving but sultry kiss-off anthem: Benjamin had been looking for a singer to channel her lyrics’ righteous rage and when she heard Chinah Blac singing at a house party, she realized she’d found a match. The easygoing, satisfied, boudoir-pop song Smile bounces along with lead vocals by Maya Azucena and one of Benjamin’s signature lush, balmy horn charts – and an exquisitely warm, direct alto sax solo. And Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing pays homage to Benjamin’s longtime pal Stevie Wonder: Benjamin speeds it up, reinventing it for the dancefloor with latin sabor and a tight clave beat.

The closing track, Slow Juice originated as a studio mistake: when Benjamin heard an earlier composition being played back at halfspeed, she realized that she’d stumbled upon a tremendous slow groove. So she took out the horns and vocals and turned the new track into a sly, sultry downtempo/trip-hop anthem, a platform for Benjamin to subtly flex the jazz chops she’d originally honed as a teenager playing with Rashied Ali and the Clark Terry Big Band. Benjamin’s next NYC gig with this band is 8/20 at the Red Rooster, 310 Lenox Ave. (125/126), time/$TBA; she’s at the big room at the Rockwood the following day, 8/21 at 8:30 PM for $10.

Good Stuff from Nicole Atkins and Janet LaBelle

Nicole Atkins has a nice, raw live soundboard recording from a show this year at the Music Hall of Williamsburg up at her bandcamp as a free download. Called …Till Dawn, it’s an enticement: try this for free, you’ll like it, buy the rest! See the show! And why not, this stuff is excellent. Those who don’t know Atkins may assume she’s a singer-songwriter, but this rocks, hard. The first track, This Is for Love, is sort of Lucinda Williams for a younger audience, starting out lurid with reverb-drenched slide guitar from Irina Yalkowsky (who is the absolute star of this whole thing), then turning into a big anthem, with some nice, vicious white-noise swells. You Come to Me sets biting, desperate 80s lead guitar over a fast ska bassline and a staggering bridge that jumps out of nowhere and then retreats as the guitar scorches in again. The down-and-out scenario Hotel Plaster sets Atkins’ shivery vintage Dolly Parton vocals to a reverberating Nashville noir tune. “This next song is about punching a bitch in the face,” Atkins tells the crowd and follows with My Baby Don’t Lie, a country shuffle done with a big, roaring Stonesy edge and a crazy solo slide guitar break. She ends the ep with an absolutely titanic, deliciously intense version of The Tower, the slowly swaying, funereal epic that closes her Mondo Amore album from this past spring. “We finally know why they call the dawn the mourning,” Atkins wails woundedly, Yalkowsky drawing roars of appreciation for her crazed chord-chopping solo that all of a sudden goes somber and bluesy. Atkins is at Symphony Space on Dec 8.

Where Atkins uses vintage 60s country as a stepping-off point, Janet LaBelle uses vintage 60s soul. Her most recent release, Moon Songs, is also up at her bandcamp. As with Atkins, it’s full of neat, unexpected flourishes. For instance, the opening track, The Moon is Ours shifts without warning from a pretty, jangly country vibe to a Do the Locomotion groove. Somehow they get a nice, full sound from just vocals, acoustic and electric guitar and a little percussion. The ridiculously catchy highway rock anthem Not Tonight is the best song here: as she does throughout the album, LaBelle’s full-throttle wail evokes Patricia Vonne with a little less angst: “I will get it right on the second try,” she insists.

The rest of the album is oldschool soul, for the most part, anyway. Apologies, a big, Aretha-style ballad swoops down into trip-hop on the chorus, while the big soul/gospel anthem Without You, a showcase for LaBelle’s lower register, also hits a trip-hop groove once the chorus kicks in. The last song is happy, catchy 60s Memphis pop done simply and elegantly with just acoustic guitars and vocals.