New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: stefan zeniuk

Kotorino Stuns the Crowd at Joe’s Pub

At any given time, there are always about two dozen New York rock bands who could be the best in town, and Kotorino are definitely among the current crop. Friday night at Joe’s Pub, Kotorino reminded that out of all those bands, they’re by far the most original and probably the most interesting. They didn’t do their trademark switching off on instruments – the drummer emerging from behind the kit to take a turn on harmonium, for example – leaving only frontman Jeff Morris to alternate between guitar and piano. Debonair and intense in front of the band, he scooched from side to side as he sang with an unaffected but apprehensive delivery that frequently threatened to reach to the level of a scream but never quite went there. That pervasive angst matched to an equally vivid joie de vivre perfectly capsulizes the appeal of this band, part gypsy rock, part noir cabaret, part chamber pop. This was the eight-piece version of the group, with Morris backed by two violins, trumpet, multi-reeds (baritone and tenor sax plus bass clarinet), tuba and bass for extra slinky low-register fatness, and drums.

The most amazing moment of the night, and there were plenty of those, was when the two women in the band put down their violins and joined Morris at the piano, singing eerily swooping, microtonal close harmonies that added a surreal gypsy-tinged menace to the song’s bittersweet psychedelics. “It won’t get better than this,” Morris intoned, making it clear that he meant that in every possible sense. At the end, Jesse Selengut – who was a one-man crescendo army on trumpet, all night long – exchanged bars with Stefan Zeniuk’s bass clarinet until the whole band took the song up and out with an emphatic, ominous stomp. The band opened with what was essentially a dark garage rock number in 7/8 time that wouldn’t have been out of place in the Botanica catalog: “I never had a chance to work it out, never had a chance,” Morris lamented. They followed that Oh My God, a lush steampunk anthem about sailing away in a balloon from their most recent album Broken Land, equal parts exhilaration and dread as the band built to a brief, frantic doublespeed interlude and then reverted gracefully to a distantly majestic sway.

With the harmonies between Morris and violinist Molly White – whose torchy allure made a potent contrast with his pensive, contemplative style – many of the songs evoked fellow Brooklyn art-rockers the Snow. False endings and sudden tempo changes abounded. A couple of the songs kicked off with a reggae beat and then built warily and methodically from there; the creepiest one of the night, at least musically, was a piano waltz with abrasive muted trumpet, a suspensefully atonal, swirlingly atmospheric interlude where Selengut got the chance to unleash his inner elephant and then a big, roaring outro.

It took nerve to close the set with a suicide song, Dangle Tango, but that’s what they did, lighting it up with uneasy clarinet trills and chillingly gleeful la-la harmonies as it built to a towering, manic-depressive sway that finally exploded at the end. As the audience did, seconds afterward, obviously stunned by this band’s unpredictable power. They screamed for an encore and got a rousing but uneasy singalong; they wanted another, but by now it was almost one in the morning and the club staff all looked ready for bed.

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.