New York Music Daily

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Tag: strawbs

Goddess Releases One of the Year’s Best and Most Hauntingly Psychedelic Albums

Goddess are one of New York’s most phantasmagorical, individualistic bands. There is no other group in town who sound remotely like them. Part creepy 60s psychedelic act, part folk noir, part underground theatre troupe, they create a magically eerie ambience, whether live or on record. It was a treat to be able to catch their most recent performance at a private party in south Brooklyn: the album release show for their fantastic new one, Paradise, streaming at Bandcamp. Maybe it was the low lights over a leafy back courtyard – or maybe it was Ember Schrag‘s dangerous gin punch-  but as it went on, the show built an electrically suspenseful ambience, like being invited to a wiccan ceremony or some kind of sacrifice, a real-life Stonehenge hidden away just up the block from Fourth Avenue.

Andy Newman’s lushly enveloping multi-keys are one of the keys to the band’s sound. The other is Tamalyn Miller’s one-string violin, which she built herself. With no training as a violinist, she created her own otherworldly style, sometimes trancelike, other times savage and menacing. Singer Fran Pado maxes out both the band’s surrealistic, theatrical side and also the creepiness factor. Bassist/keyboardist Bob Maynard and polymath guitar sorcerer Bob Bannister complete the picture.

The album’s opening track, Leave Here builds a gorgeously enveloping web of acoustic guitars, the women adding their eerie vocal harmonies, rising to a hauntingly bracing interlude, the stark overtones of the violin contrasting with the gently suspenseful lattice behind it. Death by Owls, a mini-suite, juxtaposes an uneasy lullaby theme with pulsing, warily echoey vocals and then a psych-folk march that looks back to vintage King Crimson or the Strawbs at their most psychedelic. Begins sets soaring, stately, gorgeous vocal harmonies over what could be a horror-film piano theme. By now, it’s clear there’s a narrative of sorts, if a rather opaque one: “Like a finger in the palm, like the death of remorse,” the women intone.

Ponies, a slow folk-rock piano theme, switches from a Brothers Grimm-style tale of mass drowning to a balmy, nocturnal Peter Zummo trombone solo. The band builds contrastingly ethereal vocals and droll electronic keys throughout the anthemic, late Beatlesque Belladonna Honey. Grey Skull works a disquieting dichotomy between ethereal, mellotron-like art-rock orchestration and stark, spare strings, Prado’s mysterious vocals soaring calmly overhead.

Married opens with the mantra “this is not a dream,” those richly soaring vocals over spare, baroque-tinged classical guitar, Miller providing a menacing, multitracked outro. The album winds up with the majestically elegaic title track, an escape anthem fueled by organ and violin, Pado’s gently alluring vocals joined by a choir of voices: a shot of hope breaking through the gloom that’s been gathering all the way to this point. What is this all about? It’s not clear. What is clear is that this is an album you have to spend some time with, and get lost in. Its closest relative is Judy Henske and Jerry Yester”s 1969 cult classic Farewell Aldebaran; someday this too may be just as prized by collectors of magical esoterica.

The outdoor show featured another, similarly phantasmagorical suite, this one a sinister, tragicomic tale of a witch who hypnotizes and then moves in with a hapless New Jersey family, who must then use what little strength they have left to break free of the spell. No spoilers here! And for the icing on the cake, Schrag played a set afterward with her full band, Bannister doing double duty on lead guitar, with Debby Schwartz playing lusciously slippery slides and chords on bass and Gary Foster behind the drum kit, matching Bannister’s edgy nuance. Highlights of the set were not one but two Macbeth-themed new ones. What’s become more and more intriguing, watching Schrag’s repertoire grow over the past several months, is how she takes fire-and-brimstone biblical imagery and turns it back on itself, a savagely articulate critique set to similarly biting, incisive psychedelic rock. Speaking of which, she’s playing Hifi Bar (the old Brownies) at 8 PM on July 2. Watch this space for upcoming Goddess gigs – with their theatrical, multimedia bent, they like to make their events special and for that reason haven’t been playing live a lot lately.

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.

David Cousins of the Strawbs: At His Artistic Peak

Legendary British band the Strawbs, long admired as much for their pensive folk-rock as well as their more ornate, artsy rock anthems and incisive social commentary, play B.B. King’s on Tuesday, September 11 at around 9. David Cousins, the band’s engaging, articulate main songwriter and frontman, generously took some time in between concerts on this year’s East Coast tour to shed some light on what he and the band have been up to lately:

New York Music Daily: For a band that’s been around over 40 years and through all sorts of lineups, who’s playing this time out?

David Cousins: This is the three-piece acoustic band, part of the lineup from 1974! Myself, David Lambert on guitar and Chaz Cronk on bass and foot pedals.

NYMD: You’ve been through all sorts of stylistic changes as well as band members. First you were the Strawberry Hill Gang, playing American bluegrass and folk music, then you backed Sandy Denny on her first album. You did the Britfolk thing on From the Witchwood, went into psychedelic art-rock for a few albums, then got louder and more electric later in the 70s before revisiting the acoustic stuff in the 80s. Could you say that there a “classic Strawbs” era, or a favorite period in the band for you?

DC: It’s right now. We’ve come round to it now after all we’ve learned, with all the changes in the band, all the different lineups. Now we’re down to an acoustic version again. We’ve amalgamated all those various inspirations, so I have to say this is my favorite time in the band. After all, the songs tell stories – and people love the lyrics, and people actually hear the lyrics for a change rather than being overpowered by the band…

NYMD: Then would you say, after playing big stadiums back in the 70s, making a live album at the Royal Albert Hall, that you’ve finally now just reached the peak of your career?

DC: In terms of audience size, no, but in terms of music, it’s quite unusual – we get standing ovations, halfway through the show! And some of these songs we play are very delicate. But the subject matter seems to get people excited.

NYMD: You have David Lambert on lead guitar – he’s a loud, fiery, intense player, it must be quite a change to have him on acoustic instead of electric…

DC: He’s still like that now! He was a very powerful guitarist, still is. But we do it on acoustic guitars and it’s no less forceful.

NYMD: And you have Chaz Cronk, the band’s longtime bassist…

DC: Chaz is using foot pedals. The way the pedals are configured, they’re attached to a synthesizer, so for example, on New World [the classic centerpiece of what might be the band’s greatest album, 1972’s ornate, grimly apocalyptic Grave New World], he can play the original mellotron figure. It adds a new dimension to the band. It’s the same principle as a concert organ. While he’s playing bass, or 12-string guitar, he’s also playing with his feet at the same time…a huge noise coming out, and there’s no trickery in it, no tapes in the back!

NYMD: You don’t miss having a drummer?

DC: Drummers are too bloody loud! They’re the curse of mankind [grins].

NYMD: So what does the crowd this Tuesday at B.B. King’s have to look forward to? Old stuff? New stuff?

DC: Don’t worry, you’ll get the “classics” – New World, the full version of the Autumn Suite that by the way we don’t miss the strings or the drums on…very obscure material from early on to start the show as well…

NYMD: You’ve earned a reputation for all kinds of surprises in concert: you never play a song remotely the same way two nights in a row…

DC: I’d get bored sick if I did that!

NYMD: Did you ever have any idea that in 2012 you’d still be doing this, or be so well-received after all these years?

DC: I never expected it in a million years! Some of the songs we’re playing now are 40 years old. We’re developing a new audience as we go – we find them coming to the next show, and the one after that…

NYMD: Speaking of crowds, what are the crowds like these days? Older folks, hobbits, or are the kids making you their latest rediscovery?

DC: By and large, it is an older crowd, sometimes parents brings in their kids – generations following it through. But we played in Vienna, Virginia, just outside Washington, DC on the first night of the tour and a young couple wandered in; the young girl was no older than 22. After the show, I went to the bar and got a glass of wine to wind down and her boyfriend came up and he said, “Do you mind if I say hello?

And I said fine, and we got to chatting, and he said, “My girlfriend and I had no idea of who you were, and what you do, but we were completely mesmerized by it.” And later his girlfriend came over and she said, “My boyfriend and I had no idea of who you were, but I found that the most interesting thing I’ve seen in years.” And then there was an older couple that had gotten married to the Autumn Suite. The woman came over and gave me a peck on the cheek, and I gave her a peck on the cheek, and I found out they’d been married for 22 years. So I guess I must have done something right. It makes all this worthwhile for me.

NYMD: How has the recent shakeup in the music business affected you? You remember, a concert would be like an advertisement for an album: you’d go to the show, and then you’d want to pick up the album afterward. Now it’s just the opposite: the album is an ad for the live show, which is where musicians make their money now. How have things worked out for you?

DC: Obviously, I don’t do it for the money, but I still get an enormous amount of pleasure out of it. I think our music comes from the heart and soul. The lyrics are written very personally, played on proper instruments, piano and guitar, and the words are at the center – the melody line is extended to accommodate the words. Nowadays, songs are written on computers. They do one word, one verse, one chorus, they cut and paste it, it’s so mechanical and formulaic! There’s no heart and soul in it. You listen to these dance records, I can’t imagine these bands out there in 40 years communicating anything….

NYMD: I don’t either. But you’re living proof that there’s an audience for intelligent music – if anybody’s alive 40 years from now, I can tell you that some people will be listening to the Strawbs!

DC: [laughs] I hope so!

NYMD: Even though anyone can go online and get a free download of any album you’ve ever released, you’re still moving merch, keeping your heads above water and so forth?

DC: We’re still selling records. We’ve sold a hundred thousand records over the last ten years. That’s ten thousand records a year. We have a new album coming out at the end of October – a reissue of Deadlines [an artsy pop effort from 1978 which was a big British hit] with all kinds of alternate versions and new essays, liner notes that I’ve written. We’ll have a new one out in February with totally different songs from what we play onstage now. Put it this way, we’re selling sufficient quantities to keep a business going.

The Strawbs hit the stage at B.B. King’s at around 9 PM on September 11 at B.B. King’s; $25 advance tickets are still available as of today.