New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: symphonic rock

A Prophetic, Elegaic Single From Simone White

Why did we wait
All the signs were there
We simply did not care

Simone White recorded her single Letter to the Last Generation, a lush piano-and-omnichord-driven waltz, before the lockdown. It seems to be a global warming cautionary tale, but it fits the darkest side of this era’s zeitgeist, the propagandized and terrorized marching in their muzzles into the jaws of a holocaust.

A Cure For Wellness – More Apropos Than Ever

It’s hard to imagine a more appropriate title for any work of art in the year 2020 than A Cure For Wellness. Gore Verbinski’s dark psychological thriller film was actually released in 2016. Benjamin Wallfisch’s orchestral score was also released as a stand-alone album and is streaming at Spotify. It’s a masterpiece of immersive, creepily and artfully arranged neoromanticism, comparable to Saint-Saens or Schubert. This somber theme and variations works just as well as a soundtrack for the year of the lockdown, where a system which was imperfect to begin with was engineered to divide, conquer and murder through a campaign of relentless terror.

The opening theme begins with disturbingly childlike vocalese joined by slow, somberly waltzing, piano and strings, which grow more oppressively creepy in the brief first variation. A circling, macabre, Philip Glass-like interlude and a brief, quasi-Renaissance chorale keening with overtones enhance the mystery.

Feuerwalzer, a twistedly Shostakovian parody of a genial Viennese waltz, is next. As the score moves along, Wallfisch employs bells for extra menacing ambience, brings back the orchestral bluster and then a still, moody suspense. Cynical, pseudo-motorik strings recede for gamelanesque phantasmagoria and then return after a gloomy lull.

Stygian atmospherics, cruelly warped chase scenes and sheer desolation follow in turn, with the waltz theme making a predictably melancholy return. Mirel Wagner and the composer himself end the album with a sarcastically opiated guitar-and-vocal version of I Wanna Be Sedated.

The Data Lords Are No Match For the Rest of Us in Maria Schneider’s Visionary Magnum Opus

Imagine what Hitler could have done if Facebook and Instagram had existed in 1938. There wouldn’t have been a single Jew or Romany person left alive in Europe. Or any musicians, artists, writers, or member of the intelligentsia.

All genuine art is transgressive. And fascists don’t like people who disobey.

There are a lot of little Hitlers working for the Trace and Track Corps right now who are datamining Facebook, Instagram, and every other digital platform including private phones.

You do the math.

So it’s kind of a miracle that Maria Schneider has been able to release her new album Data Lords in the year of the lockdown. In a career where she’s been widely acknowledged as the foremost jazz composer since the 1990s, this is a magnum opus, her bravest and most musically ambitious release yet. And it ends optimistically. As Schneider sees it, the people – and the animals, and the lakes and the trees – are going to win this war.

It’s a double album, the first titled The Digital World, the second Our Natural World. Schneider grew up in Minnesota, an outdoorsy kid whose love and advocacy for nature remains a persistent theme throughout her work. That resonates more strongly than ever on the second disc.

The first is protest music on the highest level of artistic expression, with Shostakovian irony and defiant Mingus humor. Improvisation seems to play an even greater role than ever in Schneider’s work here, and her brilliant ensemble attack it with reckless abandon and attention to the most minute details. It would take a book to dissect each of these pieces.

The opening number is A World Lost. Reduced to lowest terms, it’s basically a one-chord jam. From Frank Kimbrough’s elegaic, modally circling piano and Jay Anderson’s somber bowed bass, drummer Johnathan Blake adds mutedly shamanistic color. The orchestra develops a chromatic menace anchored by the low reeds, Rich Perry’s hopeful, defiant tenor sax pulsing through what could be groupthink. Anderson signals a rise to a fullscale conflagration; Perry’s tumble out of the sky, shadowed by guitarist Ben Monder’s atmospheric lines, is one of the most stunning moments on the album. Is this a portrait of the innate feebleness of the data lords, whose machines have not liberated but disempowered them? Or is this the failure of the world to realize the sinister implications of digital media?

The sarcasm in Don’t Be Evil – you know, the Google motto – is savage to the extreme. The quirky intro hints that these dorks couldn’t hurt a fly – but wait! A folksy caricature grows more macabre, with stabbing horns and a spastic, tormented guitar solo as a marching lockstep develops. Trombonist Ryan Keberle plays momentary voice of reason, Kimbrough the gleefully evil architect of an empire of spies with his phantasmagorical ripples. This might be the best song Schneider ever wrote.

Although CQ CQ Is There Anybody There predates the lockdown, it could be a portrait of what Del Bigtree calls the “illuminati of clowns” behind it. This one’s particularly creepy. There’s a persistent rubato feel to a large proportion of this disc, and this song is a prime example, from acidically swooping atmospherics and a descent into the murk with guitar lurking just overhead. Tenor saxophonist Donny McCaslin provides ebullient contrast over the growl as Blake builds wave motion, then trumpeter Greg Gisbert and his pedal become a one-man cheer section for impending doom as the orchestra fall in and out of sync, until his shriek signals complete control. Those masks will never come off again.

Scott Robinson channels a vast range of emotions on baritone sax, from burbling contentedness to valve-ripping extended technique throughout Sputnik. Kimbrough introduces it somberly, then it becomes a contented deep-space theme. The way Schneider weaves the initial disquiet back in is nothing short of brilliant; the group bring it full circle. A 5G parable, maybe?

The album’s title track and centerpiece has a cold vindictiveness, from the glitchy electronic sarcasm of the intro, through an anxious flutter of individual voices as Blake circles his kit. Trumpeter Mike Rodriguez chooses his spots over a grim vamp, offers a guarded optimism but finally grows frantic. Could alto saxophonist Dave Pietro’s menacing chromatics and wobbly microtones over Kimbrough’s tinkle be a cartoonish take on a Bill Gates type?  When everything completely and abruptly falls apart, leaving only glitches behind, Schneider leaves no doubt that the data lords are doomed – and as the rest of the record attests, there are better things ahead.

Our Natural World begins with Sanzenin, a steady, calmly pulsing anthem which could be a largescale Claudia Quintet piece with Gary Versace’s terse accordion at the center. Steve Wilson’s coy blippy soprano sax is joined by warmly rippling piano, followed by whimsical conversation between accordion and sax in the carefree Stone Song, a rubato samba with lots of quick staccato bursts from everybody

Kimbrough’s glistening, incisive chords introduce Look Up, trombonist Marshall Gilkes echoing that bright lyricism throughout several solos. Gospel allusions from the piano filter through the orchestra’s lustre: Schneider’s signature colors shine especially in the inventive harmonies between low and high brass. There’s a jaunty son jarocho bounce as it moves along, Versace’s accordion coming to the forefront once more.

Braided Together, the album’s shortest number, is a lustrously triumphant, anthemically pulsing pastoral jazz vehicle for fondly soaring alto from Pietro. Bluebird, the most epic track here, is a throwback to Schneider’s Concert in the Garden days, with Gil Evans sweep and expanse, a muscular rhythmic drive, Kimbrough fueling the upward climb. The rhythm section channel the Meters behind Wilson’s jubilant, blues-tinged alto sax; Versace leaps and spins like a seal in the water. The orchestra reach a blazing peak and then shuffle down to a fadeout

The Sun Waited For Me makes a benedictory coda, glistening highs mingling with burnished lows. Eventually, a soulful, increasingly funky ballad emerges,  McCaslin’s tenor ratcheting up the energy. A career highlight from a group that also includes trumpeters Tony Kadleck and Nadje Nordhuis, trombonist Keith O’Quinn, and George Flynn on the bass trombone.

As you would expect, the web abounds with live performances from Schneider’s rich catalog; at present, this is not one of them. Schneider has had a long-running beef with youtube, and considering what’s happened this year, who can blame her. This is a treasure worth waiting for when it comes out on vinyl. 

Intriguing, Allusively Lyrical Violin Songs From Concetta Abbate

Violinist Concetta Abbate writes imaginatively detailed, concise chamber rock songs – when she’s not playing string quartets, or ambient music. She draws on a classical background as well as an immersion in the New York free improvisation scene. Some of the songs on her new album Mirror Touch – streaming at Bandcamp – bring to mind a higher-register Rasputina, or in more delicate moments, cello rocker Serena Jost or the Real Vocal String Quartet. Much of this material is through-composed: Abbate doesn’t typically repeat herself or stay in one place for very long. She also uses pizzicato as much as she bows: this music has plenty of bounce and groove.

The album title refers to mirror-touch synesthesia, where an individual physically feels a physical reaction when another person is touched (many consider it extrasensory perception). The first song, Creatures, is a diptych, its elegantly vamping, swaying baroque pop shifting to a triumphant, emphatic conclusion. Abbate’s search for solid ground amid the relentless uncertainty of gentification-era New York becomes a rare success story.

She leaps to the top of her expressive high soprano in the precise cadences of the Renaissance-flavored miniature Madrigal. Then she matches a gentle but resolute vocal to more baroque-tinged, acerbically leaping violin riffage in Lavender, drummer Ben Engel artfully handling the subtle rhythmic shifts.

The jaunty latin jazz pulse of September, spiced with Charlie Rauh’s guitar and Abbate’s resonant lines on the low strings of her five-string model contrasts with the song’s troubled lyrics. Sunlight, an instrumental with wordless vocals, slowly coalesces toward Bach out of carefree, leaping phrases; then the energy picks up again.

Building has delicate pizzicato that shifts into ambience and one of Abbate’s most acerbically loaded lyrics:

Notebooks upon notebooks
Cost more than I make
Face upon illusion
Give and take
Will they discover me
Will I be found out

Hazy harmonics from both violin and Vasko Dukovski’s bass clarinet provide a surreal backdrop for the warmly inviting vocals of Overflow. The album’s funniest, most playful number is Mis, an instrumental duet between Dukovski and flutist Leanne Friedman.

Abbate returns to a more broodingly poetic atmosphere with Bit of Rain, which has hints of both trip-hop and 20th century minimalism. She follows that with the album’s most hypnotically circling number, Secrets

Worlds, a solo instrumental for violin and vocals, follows a disquieted path through riffage that evokes Ligeti, Bartok, and also Celtic music. Abbate concludes with the benedictory diptych Forgetful, an apt way to close this fresh, verdant, allusively intriguing album.

Lavish, Imaginatively Arranged, Individualistic Ballads From Le Mirifique Orchestra

Le Mirifique Orchestra play lush, vast, majestically arranged ballads from the worlds of jazz standards, classic chanson and pop music. The arrangements on their new album Oh! My Love – streaming at Bandcamp – draw on classical styles from the baroque to the 21st century, emphasis on the modern. It’s an absolutely unique, imaginative sound, with jazz solos, classical lustre and catchy, relatively short songs. The group like playful instrumental intros, and have six strong singers taking turns out front.

The orchestra open the record with calmly spacious minimalism and then make their way into the first song, Skylark, sung with soaring, vintage soul-infused hopefulness by Agathe Peyrat. With orchestration that spans the sonic spectrum, from Thomas Saulet’s flute and Nicolas Fargeix’s clarinet down to Jérémie Dufort’s tuba, the song sets the stage for the rest of the record.

Co-leader Alban Darche’s judicious sax flurries over Alexis Thérain’s bittersweet guitar chords introduce Don’t Explain, then back away for Alice Lewis’ similarly pensive vocals. The swirl of the reeds against the resonance of trumpeter Rodolph Puechbroussous and horn players Pierre-Yves Le Masne and Emmanuel Bénèche maintain an uneasy dichotomy over drummer Meivelyan Jacquot’s muted sway.

Chloé Cailleton moves to the mic for the wistful You Can Never Hold Back Spring, the orchestra shifting between terse lustre and bubbling optimism. After a coyly shapeshifting intro, crooner Loïs Le Van takes over the lead on Parce que je t’aime, the ensemble moving from a subtle fugue to bright pageantry and back.

After a suspensefully flurrying guitar-and-drums interlude, the strings of Le Quatuor Psophos add lushness to the moody, often rather troubled instrumental Answer Me. Darche opens Je crois entendre with a balmy solo, then Philippe Katerine offers a gentle vocal over a contrastingly brooding, tense backdrop.

The string quartet return for My Love, foreshadowing the album’s title track with disquieting close harmonies and dynamic shifts. Cailleton takes over vocals again in a hazily brassy take of I’ll Be Seeing You, the high reeds rising to a balletesque peak.

Lewis goes back to the mic with a moody understatement for the haunting Celian’s Complaint, guest trumpeter Geoffroy Tamisier winding it up with a desolate solo: it’s the high point of the album. The similarly somber, mysterious narrative Et pour autant qu’il m’en souvienne makes a good segue, Le Van’s sober spoken word set to spare, possibly improvised verses before the angst-fueled chorus kicks in. Thomas de Pourquery sings the title cut to close the album on a pensively pillowy note.

Lush, Elegant, Moodily Orchestrated Chamber Pop from Chanteuse Z Berg

Press releases usually can’t be trusted, especially when it comes to music. The one that came with the new album Get Z to a Nunnery, by a singer who goes by the name of Z Berg characterized the record as “a little bit Francoise Hardy…a little bit Dusty Springfield on drugs..” Intriguing, no? It’s streaming at Bandcamp – see for yourself.

While Berg’s lavishly orchestrated songs are totally retro 60s, her voice is very much in the here and now. There’s a big crack in it when she reaches for a crescendo, Amy Winehouse-style. In quieter moments, her mutedly husky musings bring to mind Americana chanteuses like Tift Merritt. And either the album cost a fortune to produce, or Berg has lots of conservatory-trained friends (or dad still has something left from the old days at the formerly big record label). Sweeping orchestration and classically-tinged piano pervade her moody narratives, full of artful chord changes, dynamic shifts and picturesque imagery. It’s more valium and vodka than Prozac.

The opening ballad, To Forget You sets the stage, floating along over lush strings and a gracefully swaying 6/8 rhythm. The theme of I Fall For the Same Face Every Time is that troubled birds of a feather flock together, set to elegantly arpeggiated piano and baroque harp cascades.

“We didn’t fear the things we did not know,” Berg asserts in another 6/8 number, Time Flies, a pretty generic pop song heavily camouflaged in layers of backward-masked guitar and symphonic gloss. She shifts to a straight-up waltz tempo for Into the Night, a more delicate number that could be Charming Disaster on opium.

A gentle foreboding pervades Calm Before the Storm, the gently fingerpicked guitar, 70s Nashville pop melody and Berg’s plainspoken lyrics bringing to mind Jenifer Jackson in Americana mode. Little Colonel is one of the more skeletal and haunting tracks here, rising to a low-key baroque pop arrangement:

Dear little colonel, one foot in the grave
Fighting the war with an unsteady aim
Is that the goal, to create a crusade
With nothing for no one, so no one is saved
Or safe

It was recorded before the lockdown, but it’s uncanny all the same.

Berg and I (that’s the title) is a doomed noir cabaret number gliding along with mutedly insistent piano, strings and backward masking. Charades, a duet, is more sardonic and ELO-ish, the piano receding behind fingerpicked guitar. “It was a scream when were young and dumb, acid on Topanga Beach, in my mind we’ll always be that free,” Berg recalls in The Bad List, an anguished holiday nightmare breakup scenario: it’s the album’s Fairytale of New York. There’s also a starry instrumental epilogue. This is a sleeper candidate for the shortlist of the best albums of 2020.

Artfully Orchestrated, Gorgeously Angst-Fueled Tunesmithing From Steve Dawson & Funeral Bonsai Wedding

Steve Dawson & Funeral Bonsai Wedding play an achingly lush, angst-ridden brand of chamber pop that looks back to 50s lounge music but isn’t cheesy. Brian Carpenter‘s most noirish adventures, Ward White‘s work with Joe McGinty, and Jon DeRosa at his most orchestral are good points of comparison. Dawson’s latest album Last Flight Out is streaming at Bandcamp.

The album opens with the slow, undulating title track, awash in strings far more stark than syrupy. Dawson sings in an uneasy, somewhat gritty tenor. Jason Adasiewicz’s rippling vibraphone enters over the lithe acoustic rhythm section of drummer Charles Rumback and bassist Jason Roebke ; the song could be about escaping an invasion, or a metaphor for a doomed relationship.

Despite the persistent extinction metaphors, there’s hope in Mastodon, a brokenhearted waltz, Rumback’s cymbal washes mingling with creepily fluttering strings and the echo of the vibes. Built around a simple, catchy string riff, However Long It Take has a steady clave beat and rousingly optimistic gospel harmonies.

The Monkey’s Mind Is on the Prowl has a cocooning, lullaby-esque atmosphere that hits a peak with a balletesque coda from the strings and then a long, hypnotic outro. The album’s starkest and best song is While We Were Staring Into Our Palms, a cautionary tale about eternal vigilance being the price of liberty:

It might have all gone differently
The chemistry failed
That tree just had to come down
Blind rage prevails
Oh say can you see?

It’s Not What You Think has a flinty, Sam Reider-esque folksiness, a wise admonition not to take things on face value. What a refreshingly original, smart, tastefully crafted album.

A.A. Williams Sings Gloomy Songs for a Gloomy Era

A.A. Williams plays slow, toweringly crescendoing, gothic-tinged art-rock with world-weary noir cabaret overtones. If you feel “alone with nothing at all,” as Williams intones at the end of the second track on her debut album Forever Blue – or as washed-out and pale as she characterizes herself later on the record – this is your jam.

The first song on the album -streaming at Bandcamp  – is All I Asked For Was It to End, an elegant, brooding, soul-tinged piano ballad slowly rising to an angst-fueled art-rock sweep with distantly searing slide guitar soaring overhead: “All I asked for was to end it all,” Williams quietly insists. It reminds of the quieter side of the Bright Smoke’s Mia Wilson.

Melt opens with a spare bass-and-vocal verse, then a skeletal waltz that follows a slow upward climb to majestic grandeur: “These choice will come back and I will go back into the night again,” Williams asserts. Dirt – an original, not the Iggy Pop classic – begins with hints of classic country and grows more envelopingly Lynchian. But at least there’s hope: “I never thought that I could hold on,” Williams muses through her wide-angle vibrato.

With her stark reverb-guitar intro, Fearless is another track that wouldn’t be out of place in the Bright Smoke catalog. Williams’ ominously overdubbed vocal harmonies and the unexpected descent into a death metal-tinged abyss provide a welcome, unexpected jolt.

Glimmer is a gloomy Britfolk-tinged waltz with smartly terse orchestration and the expected big crunchy crescendo. The album hits a hypnotically minimalistic interlude with Love and Pain, and then its most enigmatic track,Wait: basslines figure heavily in in both songs.

Williams closes the record with I’m Fine, a single bell tolling before the somber piano intro. It’s an apology for being depressed all the time. In the year of the lockdown, there’s no shame in that: it makes you one of the gang. Let’s just not let being depressed stop us from demanding our rights. No more lockdowns again, ever!

Smart, Poignant Songs and Disarmingly Shattering Vocals From Kari van der Kloot

Singer Kari van der Kloot’s new album The Architects is completely its own animal. The closest reference point is Jenifer Jackson‘s early zeros work: informed by jazz, with rock tunefulness, classical lustre, breathtakingly unselfconscious, crystalline vocals and disarmingly sharp lyrics.

The key to the record – streaming at Bandcamp – is Caution, Nathan Ellman-Bell’s subtle, quasi-martial drums behind Jamie Reynolds’ spare, brooding, chiming piano, violinist Lisanne Tremblay’s turbulent lines channeling the horror-stricken angst this country felt in the wake of the 2016 Presidential election. “Walk slow with your eyes closed, how could I have known how much more we could fall down,” van der Kloot wonders, rising to a leaping vocalese solo. There are no words for moments like that.

The title track is a hopeful sequel, pondering the kind of world we might be able to build in the wake of such a tragedy: van der Kloot’s vocals over Reynolds’ purposeful piano bring to mind another brilliant, poltically aware jazz songwriter, Sara Serpa.

The opening track, What I’ll Find has both tenderness and wistful anticipation, a portrait of searching for home set to a moody clave jazz backdrop. The layers of vocals reflect van der Kloot’s background as a chorister; Tremblay’s jagged lines nail the song’s persistent restlessness.

Swimming is a pensively circling, metaphorically-charged tableau about being in over your head, with an edgy chordal solo from Reynolds. It May Not Always Be So is a setting of an E.E. Cummings (sorry, capitalizing proper nouns is done for a reason) poem, with starkly resonant violin.

Same Song, an insistent, steady portrait of frustration and breaking away which could work on many levels, has a wryly oscillating synth solo from Reynolds. The disquieting intro to Ask reflects the theme of a shy person trying to get up the courage to ask for more: it’s a brave, violin-fueled, jazz-oriented take on Dan Penta‘s comment that “I would have been greedy if I’d have known my size.”

Hide and Seek is a contemplation of one-sided relationships, whether romantically or otherwise, set to a sternly circular minor-key backdrop. Arguably the album’s most lushly bustling number, Careful Construction reflects the precarious situation anyone who managed to move to New York faced in the past decade, surrounded by forbidding speculator properties decimating practically every streetcorner; yet van der Kloot refuses to let all this rob her of being centered.

The album winds up with Holding Pattern, a tersely minimalistic, suspenseful portrait of a long-distance relationship that actually worked out well, based on the changes to Steely Dan’s Dirty Work. Yikes! A stealth contender for best vocal jazz album of 2020, right up there with Aubrey Johnson‘s Unraveled.

Smart, Stormy, Fearless Art-Rock From Victoria Langford

Singer/multi-keyboardist Victoria Langford writes lush, sweeping yet very sharply sculpted songs. She has a strong, meticulously nuanced, expressive voice and a venomous sense of humor. She likes swirling, stormy orchestration and using religious imagery as a metaphor for interpersonal angst. Her debut album, simply titled Victoria, is streaming at Bandcamp. Imagine a more organic Radiohead, or a young Kate Bush at half the volume.

The album’s first track is Psalm, Langford’s spare Wurlitzer and insistent piano contrasting with Brett Parnell’s nebulous wash of guitars. The phantasmagoria hits redline with the second song, Coney Island, a harrowing, achingly intense tableau awash in a roar of sound and creepy canival effects:

I see stars
From the back
Of your hand
You bury me
Alive

At a moment in time when domestic abuse is rising with all this endless quarantining, the song has more relevance than ever.

Langford’s cynicism hits a peak in Savior, a brief, thumping parody of dancefloor pop:

You think everyone wants to fuck you
You are a victim or most wanted on the streets
You like to think that you are Kanye
But sitting on your ass won’t make those beats

I Found Hell Looking For Heaven is an instrumental, a majestic title theme of sorts, Leah Coloff’s stark cello blending with Langford’s symphonic keyboard orchestration. The string into to Boboli Gardens, cello bolstered by Sarah Goldfeather and Andie Springer’s violins, is even more plaintive, Langford’s piano shifting to a hazy, country-tinged sway.

The Radiohead influence comes through the most clearly in the slow, brooding What Might Have Been, right down to the glitchy electronics and tinkly multitracks behind the starkly circling piano riffs.

Rob Ritchie’s guitar lingers amid a whoosh of string synth over Joe Correia’s bass and Evan Mitchell’s drums in Be a Dragon, a surreal mashup of hip-hop and Radiohead with a fearless Metoo-era message. Langford winds up the record with The Truth, a pulsing, unapologetic escape anthem: It’s rare to see an artist come straight out of the chute with something this unique and individualistic, a stealth contender for best debut album of 2020.