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Love's the Only Engine of Survival

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Breathtaking Grandeur and a Feast of Guitars on Noctorum’s Latest Brilliant Album

Marty Willson-Piper is best known as this era’s greatest twelve-string guitarist, but he’s also a brilliant songwriter, an aspect that was often weirdly overlooked during his long tenure alongside another great tunesmith, Steve Kilbey, in iconic Australian psychedelic band the Church. Willson-Piper has also put out several great albums under his own name and with Noctorum, his project with Dare Mason. Noctorum‘s richly orchestral, mesmerizingly jangly latest album, Afterlife, is streaming at Bandcamp.

It opens with The Moon Drips, a slinky, seductive, bolero-tinged ballad: imagine Nick Cave at his lushest, with a brass section. The carnivalesque, hurdy-gurdy style bridge is delicious.

High Tide, Low Tide is a mighty, jangly, propulsive rocker that would have been a standout track on a late 80s Church album. Mason sings this cautionary tale to a high-flying party animal who’s heading for a fall.

Willson-Piper returns to lead vocals for the album’s first single, Piccadilly Circus in the Rain, a bleakly gorgeous, syncopatedly swaying portrait of quiet working class desperation in real estate bubble-era London. A lusciously icy blend of six and six-string guitars anchor Show, a grimly metaphorical breakup narrative set to vamping, Television-like janglerock. Willson-Piper’s incisive, climbing bass punctuates the lush, dreamy, pulsing sonics and baroque elegance of A Resurrected Man.

The album’s loudest track is A Girl with No Love: choogling, raging 70s riff-rock verse, lushly jangly chorus. “I don’t know if I’ll ever dream again, all I know is I can,” Willson-Piper croons in Trick, a surreal blend of Iggy Pop and the Cocteau Twins. Head On (not the Stooges classic but a duet between Willson-Piper and his violinist wife Olivia) rises out of incisively rhythmic riffage to a sultry, sinister peak and eventually an outro straight out of Jethro Tull: “See you at nine-ish where we first met, me and my Sunbeam, you and your Corvette.”

The album’s title track is its most amorphous number, Willson-Piper’s narrator waiting in the netherworld for loved ones amid the guitar swirl. The final cut is the unexpectedly whimsical, bouncy In a Field Full of Sheep. Good to see these guys, with careers that go back to the early 80s, still going strong.

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A Long-Overdue Retrospective From the Greatest Songwriter You Might Not Know

Back in the radio-and-records era, it was common for a band to put out a greatest-hits album to fulfill their obligation to the label in order to get out of a record deal. Mark Breyer, longtime leader of cult favorite powerpop band Skooshny, put his together to get a record deal. Which makes sense in a way: Breyer is nothing if not counterintuitive. The album, Matchless Gifts – out from Kool Kat Musik and streaming at Bandcamp – is a lavish, smartly assembled double-cd compilation of the best tracks he’s released since 2006 under the name Son of Skooshny, often in collaboration with multi-instrumentalist Steve Refling. For those new to the Breyer songbook, this is as good a way as any to get to know one of the greatest songwriters alive, and it’s one of the best albums of 2017.

The layers of jangly guitars and dreamy sonics draw obvious comparisons to Australian psychedelic/spacerock legends the Church, reinforced by Breyer’s brilliant lyrics – his double entendres and wordplay rank with the Church’s Steve Kilbey, and Elvis Costello, and Rachelle Garniez. And the songs are catchy beyond belief, drawing on decades of clang and twang – Carl Newman is another reference point. Yet Breyer’s catalog doesn’t really evoke any band other than his old one. This guy is a real individualist, a first-ballot Hall of Famer who might take you by surprise.

And much as Breyer can’t resist a good pun – it’s impossible to count all of them here – these songs are sad. The devil is always in the details: Breyer has a rare eye for them. The one that might rip your face off more than any of the others, The Subtle Eye, is actually a brisk, balmy number and one of the gentlest songs here:

Teddy lifts me to a cloud
To protect me from an angry crowd
We sit and watch the spectacle below
Teddy died too young for her to go

See, Teddy is a dog. She appears in a dream, after appearances by now-deceased parents who, if these cameos are characteristic, were real cheerful earfuls (NOT). Humans will betray you, but many other species won’t. And they care enough about you to visit you after they’re gone, if only to let you know that they’re ok. In his last verse, Breyer promises to do the same: who knows what the subtle eye can see, right?

The boisterous opening anthem, Just a Test is irresistibly funny, but quaint diner food turns out to have a surprise in it, and eventually Breyer declares that “I want the other actors dead instead !” He’s referring to a tv show, but obviously there’s more to it.

“You left a note on my door, I found the footnote on the floor,” he announces as Spine, a big, enveloping seduction athem gets underway: foreshadowing is a huge part of Breyer’s M.O. A picturesque, bittersweetly romantic stroll through North Hollywood, No Ho may be conceptually funny – nobody walks in LA, right? – but you can see the ending coming a mile away, and it’s bleak.

Likewise, don’t let the blase calm 70s folk-pop sheen of Half of the World fool you. It deals with issues of perception and drunken yoga, with a coda that’s way too good to give away. Science Changes Everything, with its litany of math and physics metaphors, follows the same pattern, as does Dizzy – a dead ringer for the catchiest stuff on the Church’s Blurred Crusade album. “When more is less you use subtraction, reduce it to a fraction,” Breyer calmly intones.

His images invite plenth of debate. What does the object of affection In Mid-Century Modern do when she visits the justice of the peace? Regret, disillusion, and alienation bordering on despondency are everywhere. “I had that flat but it wasn’t home, you had a cat but you were alone,” Breyer relates in Sorry, another contrast between dreamy, Church-like sonics and richly imagistic, grim narrative.

Good Morning, Gail Warning may take place in an ashram kitchen, but Arthur Schlenger’s eerily reverberating guitars and keys are pure David Lynch soundtrack. “Troubles brew, bubbles rise,” Breyer relates in How Does It End, glistening nocturne swirling through an allusive tale of fractured family ties.

“Take apart your Japanese contraption – douse the charcoal, tear the plastic tent,” Breyer implores in Candy Air: meanwhile, the cat’s under the house and won’t come out. “May I remove your elevator shoes?” he asks in The Right Idea, backed by a plaintively lingering web of twelve-string guitars that leave no doubt how this story is going to end.

Some of these tracks rock pretty hard – Knee Deep, one of the few more optimistic anthems here; the surreal Kate’s Green Phone, which may or may not be about daydrinking and unrealistic expectations; the autobiographical Untold History, which traces an allusively harrowing Cold War childhood narrative; and Another Time, a Costello-esque account of dealing with somebody from outer space. And Bare Bones reaches toward classic punk blast and thud: it’s the closest thing to Breyer’s old band here.

In typical fashion, he saves some of the best songs for the bonus disc. Jeff Peters’ guitar nicks a familiar Angelo Badalementi film noir riff for the doomed trajectory of You Can’t Love Me:

Thank god you’re farsighted instead of near
It might be the only thing keeping you here

And Love’s Not Impossible, with Michael Meros’ hilarious early 80s pop quote, offers a tantalizing flicker of hope, even as the drizzle grows more impenetrable.

In the meantime, Breyer hasn’t slowed down. His latest single, The New South – presumably from yet another formidable album – has unexpected country flavor and a typically sardonic plotline. 

The Likely Final Release by Powerpop Icons Skooshny Goes Out Lushly and Gorgeously

Powerpop cult icons Skooshny‘s new single Saved by the Bell – streaming at Bandcamp – carries some sad history. It’s likely the final recording by the legendary studio-only project, whose lone concert appearance was at an Arthur Lee benefit. It’s not an original – it’s a cover of a 1969 British hit single by the BeeGees’ Robin Gibb. Frontman Mark Breyer channels a balmy Colin Blunstone-style unease as a lush web of twelve- and six-string guitars builds to symphonic levels, drummer David Winogrond adding some judiciously artful tumbles on the final chorus. “I died for you, I died for two,” Breyer croons. For those who might not be aware that the BeeGees’ lead singer had a solo career that went back a lot further than the disco age, is a history lesson – and if this is truly the final release by one of the best jangly bands of the last half-century, it’s as good an exit as any.

Breyer – an Elvis Costello/Steve Kilbey class songwriter – ncver stopped writing or recording after the band broke up. His albums as Son of Skooshny (the word sarcastically means “boring” in Russian) are every bit as good. There’s also reputedly long-awaited new Son of Skooshny album in the works.

A Long Overdue Appreciation of a Great Defunct Powerpop Band

In a career that spanned the better part of three decades, Skooshny played a grand total of one live gig. It was an Arthur Lee benefit.

That pretty much sums up what this band was all about. But a lack of gigs didn’t stop them from making great albums. Frontman/guitarist Mark Breyer, guitarist/bassist Bruce Wagner and drummer David Winogrond started right around the time punk was getting off the ground, finally packing it in sometime in the late zeros. Undeterred, Breyer continues as Son of Skooshny, releasing both new material and somewhat more lush versions of old Skooshny favorites. For a taste of where this cleverly lyrical, purist tunesmith is these days, check his Bandcamp page.

Although their substantial catalog is still in print, probably the best introduction to the band is their lavish 2004 best-of collection streaming at Spotify, coyly titled Zoloto, Russian for “gold” (the band name means “boring”). As you might expect, they have a cult following in Russia, and for many years were popular with the Bucketfull of Brains crowd. The songs span the band’s career, beginning in 1978, although the tracks don’t follow any kind of chronological sequence.

As a singer, Breyer pushes his airy voice to the limit without breaking: craft is one of this band’s defining qualities. Wagner is the rare guitarist who knows that less is more, and Winogrond’s stadium-riser drums are integral to the group’s often majestic sound. Lyrically, Breyer writes in the same vein as Elvis Costello or Steve Kilbey: he can’t resist a double entendre or a wry pun. And like those two, he’s a psychopathologist, dissecting relationships with a finely honed scalpel.

Alcohol is a frequent prop in Breyer’s bitter tableaux, right from the first few lines of the wickedly catchy Even My Eyes, which borrows an old Alice Cooper riff and reinvents it as vintage Cheap Trick-style powerpop. Flawed depicts a romance that was doomed from the start, over a tune that would be perfectly at home in the Marty Willson-Piper catalog.

Beautiful Bruise has a tasty blend of twelve-string and electric guitars, a ponderous waltz beat and a painterly (pun intended) Breyer lyric. The band bring in wistful Britfolk ambience with Sad Summer Spring and follow that with the even more gorgeously melancholy Holy Land, a vividly metaphorical passenger’s tale. Private Jokes nicks a classic Elvis Costello riff and beefs it up: it’s the hardest-rocking track here other than Masking the Moon, which finally goes over the edge into raw rage.

Science Changes Everyone has one of Breyer’s more clever lyrics…and a trick ending that totally blindsides you. The Water Song is the saddest number in the collection: it’s something of a more low-key update on the Stones’ Paint It Black. I See You Now maintains a jangly, Churchlike melancholy edge, while Ceiling to the Lies is the closest thing to 70s radio rock here.

Wagner takes over vocals on No Life Story, which could be a Stiv Bators ballad, and the epically aching, intense, Kevin Ayers-ish  Lullabye. And Michael Penn makes a guest appearance, playing jaunty chamberlain – which sounds like the flute setting on a mellotron, appropriately enough – as well as bass on the low-key Dessert for Two, which he also produced. It makes a good segue with Mike Thompson’s organ intro on the otherwise much more roughhewn It Hides More Than It Tells, the first of the 1978 tracks.

I Never Change My Mind sounds like the Church circa 1984 covering a catchy psych-pop hit from 1967 or so, while You Paint My World evokes that band’s jangly originals from the 80s, particularly when Wagner’s solo kicks in. And the guitarist also wails on the snarling post-Byrds anthem Crossing Double Lines. The last of the 25 tracks here is Clicking My Fingers: “Sterno in a paper cup, drink up, we’re having a party,” Breyer sardonically orders over a backdrop that’s part Byrds, part Magical Mystery Tour. Including an unexpectedly elegant cover of Davie Allan & the Arrows’ psychedelic pop classic Angel with a Devil’s Heart makes sense especially considering Wagner and Winogrond’s longtime membership in Allan’s band. What’s most striking about these songs is how consistent they are: clearly, the three had a vision and stuck with it throughout a career that deserves more than cult status.

Aaron Blount Haunts Zirzamin

Monday night at around half past eleven, the back room at Zirzamin was basically empty, and all of a sudden it was packed, as Aaron Blount, formerly of dark Austin rockers Knife in the Water took the stage for a rivetingly mysterious show, most of it solo. Blount is a tremendously interesting guitarist and a nonchalantly haunting, quietly powerful singer. Playing his Danelectro Jazzmaster copy through a Fender Twin with the reverb going full steam, his casual but precise fingerpicking built a blizzard of overtones ringing from the amp: it was as if he’d summoned every ghost who’d ever hit a reverb pedal to join him in the vortex. His songs unfolded slowly and sepulchrally, phrases from old blues, bluegrass, gospel and folk rising ominously in the mist. His mostly chordal approach to the guitar intersperses eerie passing tones to max out the menace. To twist a title from Leonard Cohen – one that Blount probably knows well – he puts a new spin on the old ceremony.

A single, jagged slash broke the enveloping ambience as Blount worked his way into the first number, employing a strange tuning for what was essentially a bluegrass melody, but one stripped to the bone and bleached by the desert sun. An icy burst from his reverb tank kicked off the next one, a mix of cold chromatic chords and muted low notes like waves hitting the November shore. “There is no room, no hostel, nowhere to hide,” Blount intoned nonchalantly. Pregnant pauses in many of these slowly crescendoing anthems left the overtones extra time to linger and leave their mark. Blount casually made his way into a bittersweet soul song that picked up with a gorgeously menacing chorus straight out of the David J songbook. A gothic folk number reminded of the Church’s Steve Kilbey at his most hypnotic; another, sung in French, sounded like Elliott Smith in ultra-minimalist mode with the reverb turned all the way up, turning a two-note phrase into an orchestra.

Then Blount brought up the Dimestore Dance Duo a.k.a. guitarslinger Jack Martin and bassist Jude Webre along with a drummer. Martin’s blends of country blues and gypsy tonalities is the raw essence of noir, and it made a perfect match with Blount’s allusive menace. This wasn’t about fitting into a song seamlessly. Martin and Webre wrestled with them, Blount calmly and coolly guiding them with a phrase, or a jab of his guitar’s headstock, the duo tossing and turning and then suddenly diving into their depths once they had the structure down. It didn’t take long. In the Dimestore project, Webre serves as the perfectly melodic, matter-of-fact foil for Martin’s jaggedly biting phrases, and he played the same role here, anchoring the songs with a series of artfully transposed voicings shifting between the lows and the upper frets. Together they rampaged haphazardly and memorably through a backbeat-driven anthem (again, evoking the Church), a twisted country blues that gave Martin a launching pad for a succession of deliciously lurid chromatic riffs, and then a creepily swaying nocturne. “The night is slowing to a crawl,” Blount intoned, “Bottles dance on the shelves…we float, drift and collide and spill out into the street.” Before they did that, they gently ravaged another ballad in the 6/8 time that Blount loves so much, Martin and then Webre shifting uneasily from major to minor, playing modes against each other as the crowd sat silent and rapt. This crew is bound to reunite at least once, whether for a show or (fingers crossed) a recording somewhere in the relatively near future: watch this space.

A Clinic in Tunesmithing with Daniel Stampfel

Thursday night Daniel Stampfel played the album release show for his new ep at Fontana’s. The singer/guitarist looks the same as he did when he was packing the old Luna Lounge ten years ago, fronting the Inevitable Breakups, a fantastic powerpop outfit that should have been the band representing New York around the world instead of the Strokes or Interpol. Stampfel’s crowd hasn’t changed any more than he has: fellow musicians out to watch a talented colleague work his magic live, and wide-eyed twentysomething women (Stampel always pulls the chicks no matter where he goes). The band was tremendous, as usual: good tunesmiths never have a hard time finding musicians to play those tunes. The lead guitarist switched expertly from searing, sun-drenched slide lines, to rapidfire, pointillistic bluesy runs, to plenty of nimble Johnny Marr-style jangle and clang, while the drummer walked the line expertly between swing and anthemic and the bassist picked out a steady, often suspenseful new wave pulse (and took the most interesting solo of the night on the next-to-last song). Stampfel’s nonchalantly soaring vocals sometimes took a back seat to the roar of the band, but that didn’t matter: people were there for the hooks.

As usual, there were plenty of those. Stampfel works a catchy area between the Jayhawks at their most cosmopolitan, the Raspberries at their most melodic and Big Star at their most focused, with a more propulsive, rhythmic drive than any of those bands. While those are all old groups, what Stampfel is doing is putting his own stamp on an oldschool style, tuneful verses working their way up to irresistibly catchy resolutions when the choruses hit. He opened playing acoustic guitar on a jangly midtempo number that wouldn’t have been out of place in the Gary Louris songbook, following with a bouncy, 80s-influenced song that was the poppiest one of the night. The band picked up the pace with a biting riff-rock number, then a more laid-back soul-flavored tune with a gorgeous little hailstorm of tremolo-picking by the lead player. Hurricane Bells’ Steve Schiltz (who produced the record) then came up to add an extra layer of his characteristically thoughtful, spacious guitar on a lush, anthemic tune that reminded of the Church back when that band was writing the occasional pop song. They closed with an unexpectedly minor-key new wave tune (the one with that great bass solo) and then an exuberant one that might have been an Inevitable Breakups song.

That was the music. Lyrics don’t really figure into what Stampfel does: some of the songs could have been titled Oh Baby I Love Your Way or Just the Two of Us (they weren’t, but you get the picture). In order to take his stuff to the next level, i.e. Carl Newman/Steve Kilbey/Elvis Costello territory, he needs a lyricist: tunes as good as this guy’s deserve some substance. One can only imagine the greatness that would result from a collaboration with, say, a Paula Carino or Ward White.