New York Music Daily

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Tag: symphonic rock

Tredici Bacci Kiss the Sky at Barbes

This is what old NEC students do when they’ve had too much to drink: play slow, simmering oldschool soul vamps, take a stab at faux-operatic vocals and then bop their way through a bunch of summery, serpentine instrumentals inspired by 60s Italian cinema. At their most recent Barbes gig back in July, Tredici Bacci did all that tighter than most bands could do sober.

Not everybody in the band was half in the bag. Singer Sami Stevens was a force of nature and then some, giving the music all the drama it demanded with her full-throttle vibrato and passion worthy of a primo Sophia Loren role. Keyboardist Evan Allen went from creepy with his tremoloing funeral organ, into outer space with the synth and then all the way back to the Middle Ages with a wry electric harpsichord patch.

The strings shimmered and shivered behind the blaze and blips of the horns – this is a big band – through a cheery mix of mostly original material, a lot of which sounded like 60s Burt Bacharach on steroids. They did one Morricone cover, but in a similar vein. The lone spaghetti western number, late in the set, was an original, and turned out to be the night’s best song.

Bandleader/guitarist Simon Hanes was in a surreal mood: “Gimme a generic bossa,” he ordered the band, and they obliged: practice this enough at conservatory and you can pull it off in a split-second like this crew. Then he had Stevens free-associate on random topics over the music, and she ran with it: she’s funny, and managed not to embarrass herself. The effect was akin to Ingrid Sertso doing her stream-of-consciousness jazz poetry thing with Karl Berger’s improvisational big band, but at doublespeed and a couple of generations removed.

Barbes is home base to a whole slew of the funnest bands in town: organ-fueled psychedelic surf rockers Hearing Things; mesmerizing Moroccan trance-dance band Innov Gnawa; Afrobeat monsters Super Yamba; fiery Ethiopian jamband Anbessa Orchestra; spectacular Bollywood cumbia band Bombay Rickey; and at the top of the list, slinky noir soundtrack trio Big Lazy.  Count Tredici Bacci as one of the newer additions to the elite: they’re back at Barbes on Sept 28 at 10 PM. The Austin Piazzolla Quintet, who open the night at 8, play both classic nuevo tango and originals in the same vein and are also excellent.

And Stevens also leads an oldschool soul group whose next gig is at the Parkside (the Brooklyn boite at 705 Flatbush Ave between  Winthrop and Parkside,  no relation to the Manhattan one) – on Oct 20 at 9:30 PM.

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Celebrating a Tragic, Iconoclastic Hungarian Hero at the National Arts Club

Wouldn’t you wash your hands after you touched a corpse? Hospital physicians at Vienna’s Algelemine Krankenhaus didn’t. From a 21st century perspective, the results were predictably catastrophic.

Ray Lustig’s grim, powerfully resonant song cycle Semmelweis, which premiered on September 11 at the National Arts Club, begins in 1848, One of Europe’s deadliest outbreaks of puerperal fever is killing one in ten new mothers at the hospital. Hungarian-born obstetrician Ignac Semmelweis is at a loss to explain it.

Semmelweis was a tragic hero in the purest sense of the word. Decades before Louis Pasteur, Semmelweis discovered the bacterial connection for disease transmission. But rather than being celebrated for his discovery and for saving countless of his own patients, he was derided as a medical heretic,  ended up losing his mind and died alone in a mental asylum seventeen years later. If not for the reactionary Viennese medical establishment, terrified of being blamed for the epidemic, today we would say “semmelweissed” instead of “pasteurized.” In an age where leakers are murdered, whistleblowers are jailed as terrorists and 9/11 historians are derided as conspiracy theorists, this story has enormous relevance.

And the music turned out to be as gripping as the narrative. Out in front of an impressively eclectic twelve-piece ensemble for the marjority of the performance, soprano Charlotte Mundy dexterously showed off a vast grasp of all sorts of styles, singing Matthew Doherty’s allusively foreboding lyrics to Lustig’s shapeshifting melodies. Pianist Katelan Terrell. accordionist Peter Flint and violinist Sam Katz wove an alternately austere and lustrous backdrop for the rest of the singers: Lustig himself in the role of Semmelweis, alongside Marcy Richardson, Catherine Hancock, Brett Umlauf, Charlotte Dobbs, Jennifer Panara and Guadalupe Peraza.

The suite began with a wash of close harmonies and ended on a similarly otherworldly note with a Hungarian lullaby sung in eerily kaleidoscopic counterpoint by the choir. The story unwound mostly in flashbacks – by women in peril, ghosts or Semmelweis himself, tormented to the grave by all the dead women he wasn’t able to save.

Many of the songs had a plaintive neoromanticism: the most sepulchral moments were where the most demanding extended technique came into play, glissandoing and whispering and vertiginously shifting rhythms. That’s where the group dazzled the most. Recurrent motives packed a wallop as well, voicing both the dread of the pregnant women and Semmelweis’ self-castigation for not having been able to forestall more of the epidemic’s toll than he did. The Hungarian government will celebrate the bicentennial of Semmelweis’ birth next year, a genuine national hero.

Looking Back and Forward to Some of the Most Electrifying Large Ensemble Shows in NYC

There are very few eighteen-piece groups in the world, let alone New York,  led by women. Even fewer of those bandleaders are singers. Here in Manhattan we have Brianna Thomas and Marianne Solivan, who have assembled their own big bands to back them from time to time. But they play mostly standards. Sara McDonald, who fronts the NYChillharmonic, writes some of the world’s catchiest yet most unpredictable music for large ensemble. Watching their show at Joe’s Pub back in May was akin to seeing a young Maria Schneider emerge from Gil Evans’ towering influence twenty years ago – not because McDonald’s music sounds anything like Schneider’s, but because it’s so distinctive and irresistibly fun. And the scariest thing of all is that McDonald still growing as a composer.

Over the last couple of years, she’s invented her own genre, and concretized it with equal amounts depth and surprise. The occasional lapse toward the corporate urban pop she may have been immersed in as a child is gone, replaced by a lavish sound with equal parts puckishness and gravitas. Radiohead is the obvious influence, but McDonald switches out icy techiness and relentless cynicism for a far more dynamic range of textures. Keeping a big band together that plays steadily for a month or two and then goes on hiatus as the band members do their own thing is a herculean task, especially as far as tightness is concerned, but this time out she’d whipped them into shape to nail the split-second changes – and there were a lot of them.

A NYChillharmonic show is best experienced as a whole. Ideas leap out, only to be subsumed in a distant supernova of brass, or a starry trail from the strings, or a calming, beachy wash from the reeds. Then that riff, in any number of clever disguises, will pop out later. McDonald works from the same playbook the best classical and film composers use, beginning with a simple singalong hook, embellishing it and then taking it to all sorts of interesting places. McDonald’s are more interesting than most. The lucky crew who got to go there this time out comprised Albert Baliwas, Brian Plautz, David Engelhard, Dean Buck and Eitan Gofman on saxes; trombonists Karl Lyden, Seth Weaver, Nathan Wood and Dillon Garret; trumpeters Rachel Therrien, Michael Sarian, Caleb McMahon and Chris Lucca; pianist Eitan Kenner, bassist Mike DeiCont, guitarist Steven Rogers and drummer Pat Agresta, plus a string quartet of Kiho Yutaka, Audrey Hayes, Jenna Sobolewski and Susan Mandel

Throughout the set, she and the group employed just as many subtle shifts as striking ones. Odd meters would filter to the bottom and then straighten out as the whole ensemble would enter over a pulsing quasi-canon from the brass or moodily loopy electric piano. More dramatically, the orchestra would drop down to just McDonald and the rhythm section, then leap back in at the end of a bar or when a chorus kicked in, such as there are choruses in her music – recurrent themes are everywhere, but never where you expect them.

On the mic, McDonald – who’s also grown immensely as a singer over the last several months – would vary her delivery depending on the song’s content, whether slyly coy, or uneasily insistent, or with one fullscale wail late in the set to illustrate some kind of apocalypse or at least a dramatic end to something good. Lately she’s been lending her voice to the even more enigmatically improvisational rock band Loosie. And she’s also been known to sing with the much crazier, high-voltage Jazzrausch Bigand, who are making their Lincoln Center debut this August 31 at 7:30 PM at the atrium space on Broadway just north of 62nd St. If you’re going, get there on time because it could get pretty wild.

You Bred Raptors? Bring Their Cinematic, Instantly Recognizable, Individualistic Grooves to Drom Tomorrow Night

If you pass through the station at Union Square at night, you’ve probably seen one of New York’s most distinctive, high-voltage bands. You Bred Raptors? typically hold fort over the N and R platforms there. Just the sight of Peat Rains, Bryan Wilson and Patrick Bradley wailing on eight-string bass, cello and drums, respectively, is enough to make pretty much anybody stop dead in their tracks. Then there’s the relentless barrage of riffs, and textures, and epic cinematic vistas that transcend any concept of a cello-metal band, let alone what those low-end instruments can typically do. Are these irrepressible instrumentalists a funk band? Sometimes, sure. Postrock? Why not? Prog, too? Umm…while there will probably be some hobbity old men in Gentle Giant tour shirts from 1974 who will dig this stuff, not really – You Bred Raptors? are too tuneful and purposeful. They’re playing the album release show for their new one International Genetics tomorrow night, June 15 at 8 PM at Drom; advance tix are $15 and are still available.

The album – streaming at Bandcamp – opens with the slinky Bayonette, Rains switching between anchoring Wilson’s dancing cello lines and burning with big distorted chords: imagine Break of Reality but with a metal edge. The second number, Polkadot has a playful, catchy minor-key Balkan-tinged groove with tasty, baroque-tinged harmonies between the cello and the high strings of the bass, peaking out with a sweet new wave of British heavy metal.

Ringing and resonant glockenspiel from Bradley carries the melody in Bellflower, an unexpectedly summery soul tune that builds toward a brisk highway theme. Stalemate has a trip-hop sway and more intricate baroque exchanges between bass and cello; Jethro Tull only wish they played Bach as tightly as these guys do this, all the way to a starkly fiery early ELO-ish peak.

Lagoon has an easygoing giraffe-walking pace, tinges of Afrobeat from the bass, then shifting to a muted suspense. Sharks & Minnows follows a bucolic, brisk stroll fueled by Wilson’s rustic lines, then predators loom in from the shadows and eventually all hell breaks loose. The band brings the glock ripples back for Vault, a wryly strutting baroque-rock number.

The crescendoing, anthemic Hyperbole is the album’s funkiest track. Melancholy cello contrasts with janglerock guitar lines from the bass and bright glock touches in Eyehole of a Domino. There’s gritty frustration boiling over into rage and hints of flamenco in the growling 6/8 phrases of Kowtow circle around.

Smithereens, the album’s most epic track, begins as an bittersweet, elegaic march – a wartime parable maybe? – and morphs into an art-rock take on a folk hymn theme of sorts. The album winds up with Ass to Ass, most likely the only trip-hop art-rock canon ever written. Pound for pound, this is one of the catchiest albums of the year – and as tersely as the band plays here, they take these songs to some pretty crazy places live. Recommended if you like Radiohead, the Mars Volta, Los Crema Paraiso and Rasputina.

A Rare Brooklyn Show and a New Record From the Great Aimee Mann

You know that voice: cool, reserved, minutely nuanced. You know those melancholy major/minor changes and Beatlesque melodies. You know that withering cynicism, that jaundiced eye, those double entendres you wish you’d written. If you don’t, Aimee Mann’s latest album Mental Illness is as good a place to start as any. Not bad for somebody who’s been making music since the 80s.

She doesn’t play Brooklyn a lot – although she did record a live DVD there. A future daily New York music blog owner brought a date to that one, at St. Ann’s Warehouse in the summer of 2004. The date didn’t go anywhere – Mann probably would have seen that coming a mile away. Or maybe she’d say it was just as well.

Believe it or not, you can bring a date to see Mann in Brooklyn, because for some reason her June 26 show at the Music Hall of Williamsburg isn’t sold out as of today. Which is even crazier since fellow cynic, Silicon Valley satirist/songwriter Jonathan Coulton is opening the night at 8. It won’t be a cheap date since general admission is $35 –  in order to avoid the embarrassment of spending even more you’re going to have to pick up your tickets at the cash table at the Mercury Lounge before 7 PM on a weeknight. But it could be worth it.

The new album came out earlier this year and is streaming at Spotify. Even by Mann’s standards, it’s a subdued, gloomy affair. It’s mostly acoustic. Mann plays guitar and bass, Jamie Edwards filling the Jon Brion role on keys and guitar, with Jay Bellerose on drums and longtime sideman Paul Bryan on bass along with a lavish string section that gives this album genuinely epic grandeur in places.

The opening track, Goose Snow Cone paints a bleak, wintry chamber-pop picture of holding on by one’s fingernails. “Always melt at the feet of the devil I know,” Mann laments. “I just wanted a place but I ended up gone.” There are more drug metaphors here than on any Mann album since 2002’s iconic Lost in Space.

The  stately, waltzing Stuck in the Past, with its major/minor Beatles changes, is classic Mann, Richard Dodd’s stark cello rising to take centerstage: “Like drawing rings around Saturn,  a shadow is cast, but now it falls a pattern.” Another waltz, You Never Loved Me is all the more disconsolate for how sparse and direct it is: the tumbling Spectorian drums as the song winds out are an apt touch

Rollercoasters, a slowly swaying, fingerpicked ballad awash in fairground images, is one of the great drug songs ever, and maybe the best one on the album. White powder isn’t something Ward White has ever written about, but if he did, the song might sound like this.

Slow and lush, heavy like a thunderstorm, Lies of Summer doesn’t reveal whether the narrator is addressing a prisoner or a dead person until the very end:

Saw you at the fall
Picture on a closed circuit
Boy you lost it all it
Thinking you could rework it

The dancing string arrangement can’t mask the wrath in the art-rock anthem Patient Zero – consider,  just for starters, what that title implies.

News filtered over the transom
That a villain ended up with a part
You paid your respects like a ransom
To a role that was doomed from the start

The title Good for Me, with its shivery ELO stings, is sarcastic – of course, right? It’s about self-deception:. “What a waste of a smoke machine,” Mann intones, and then immediately launches into a litany of powder drug metaphors. She follows it with Knock It Off, a kiss-off anthem and the album’s most opaque number.

Mann revisits the doomed boxing imagery she worked so inimitably on 2005’s The Forgotten Arm in Philly Sinks, yet another waltz. Then she picks up the pace – just a little – with Simple Fix. Three guesses as to what this one’s about. After all this pain, you can hardly blame her for setting her sights on “prizes of adrenaline.”

The album winds up on a catchy and surprisingly simple note with Poor Judge (as in “my heart is a poor judge”). If Magnolia is Mann’s commonly acknowledged masterpiece and Lost in Space a less common one, this is in the same league.. You’ll see it on the best albums of 2017 page along with recent releases by Ran Blake and Dominique Eade, Alice Lee and Ward White.

Misha Piatigorsky’s Unpredictably Fun Sketchy Orkestra Entertains the Crowd in the West Village

This past evening at the Poisson Rouge, pianist Misha Piatigorsky led his twelve-piece Sketchy Orkestra through a long, heavily front-loaded set that was as eclectic as it was entertaining. Piatigorsky is a rugged individualist who’s invented his own style of music: part art-rock, part chamber jazz, part neoromanticism and part soul music. It can be part other things too, but we’ll get to that. His lushly dynamic Sketchy Orkestra is sort of a NYChillharmonic Junior, although Piatigorsky’s group is smaller and also plays imaginatively rearranged covers in addition to originals. With his gruff, sardonic lounge lizard persona and irrepressibly ebullient sense of humor, he impressed the most with the earliest material in the set.

He opened the best song of the night, an original, solo on piano, with a creepy, modal, suspenseful intro straight out of Rachmaninoff. Then a fiery violin cadenza kicked off a blissfully edgy, dancing Sephardic melody over which soul belter Emily Braden eventually sang. They brought it full circle at the end.

Another high point was a hushed, pointillistically tiptoeing, vintage 60s noir soul ballad held aloft by the nine-piece string section. Piatigorsky can be subtle, but onstage, he’s a showman, dueling with his bandmates, shifting meters and tempos on a dime in tandem with ace drummer Anwar Marshall (who also knows a thing or two about propelling large ensembles). Piatigorsky traded riffs with bassist Noah Jackson and then later the violin section during a closing crescendo: nobody missed a beat.

A couple of times during a lustrously reinvented art-rock instrumental version of David Bowie’s Space Oddity, he switched up the tempo and took a couple of jagged, two-fisted solos that careened into Euro-jazz territory. Piatigorsky’s playing sometimes brings to mind Dave Brubeck, at other times Procol Harum’s Gary Brooker – especially in the night’s most gospel-tinged moments – and another 60s guy, Reginald Dwight, who almost took Brooker’s place in that band. But ultimately, Piatigorsky is his own animal.

A tongue-in-cheek, funky cover of Strawberry Fields Forever took similar detours into jazz territory without losing sight of the song’s surrealistic charm. “I’m glad I wrote that one,” Piatigorsky deadpanned afterward. “They named a park after it.”

“This next one is by a fellow Jew, a member of the tribe. He loved his women. He loved his drugs.” Piatigorsky paused. “I’m not talking about myself. I’m talking about the great Leonard Cohen.” And followed with the most epic version of Hallelujah that anyone ever could have attempted. The strings opened it, a wounded pavane of sorts; from there, the pianist made a mashup of gospel, art-rock and finally vintage Ashford and Simpson soul out of it. Yeah, the song should be retired and was pretty much ruined for good when Jeff Buckley did that florid cover. If only Piatigorsky could have beaten him to it.

There was other material on the bill. Oy, was there ever. Looking back, at least the rapper in the Wu-Tang shirt was good. To anyone who ever plays any of the Bleecker Street bars (and yeah, the Poisson Rouge is one of them, if a more pretentious and expensive one): these rubes from Jersey can’t tell Beethoven from Beyonce. They don’t even listen to music: they watch tv. The internet? What’s that? They’re only here because their parents came here back in the 60s and they think that being in “The City” suddenly makes them cool. They’ll applaud anything you give them. There’s no need to dumb down your set because these people can’t tell whether they’re being patronized, or actually being exposed to something worth hearing. Either way, they’ll be bragging to their friends back in Fort Lee about it.

Oh yeah – if you’re wondering who the hell Reginald Dwight is, he could have been in one of the alltime great art-rock bands, but instead he went solo and started calling himself Elton John. Whatever you think of his schlocky tunesmithing, he’s a kick-ass pianist.

Olga Bell’s Irreverently Funny, Relevant Lincoln Center Debut Trumps Adversity

Olga Bell is hilarious. In her American Songbook debut at Lincoln Center’s Kaplan Penthouse last night, the Russian-born art-rock/avant garde keyboardist/singer validated a brave piece of booking, in the process triumphing over all sorts of adversity. This was a tough gig from the git-go. Cheefing on what seemed like a bottomless thermos til it was gone, then finally switching to water, she battled a cold along with some unfamiliar gear that malfunctioned to the point of threatening to completely derail her show. But she persevered, cheerfully breaking the fourth wall when she wasn’t mercilessly pillorying the yuppie careerism, incessant status-grubbing and money obsessions of gentrifier-era Brooklyn, which she now calls home.

And she did it with more than just her lyrical jabs, which turned out to be a lot subtler than her musical barbs. Those drew the heartiest laughs from a sold-out audience of well-heeled twentysomethings whose mere presence in Manhattan on a Friday night was something of a surprise: turns out that not everyone in zip code 11221 is petrified of being geotagged outside it.

When she hit her pitch pedal and ran her vocals through a toddler-voice patch to make fun of a guy who’s too big for his britches, and then a little later turned the kiss-off anthem Power User into phony hip-hop, the crowd roared. She had similar fun with her electronics and all the loops she’d stashed away in her sequencer, particularly a Bernie Worrell-style low bass synth setting that she worked for every droll riff she could think of.

Her between-song patter also had edge and bite. Acknowledging that for her, this gig spelled revenge for having been rejected by the Juilliard folks a few floors below, she played elegantly nuanced, neoromantically-tinged piano when she wasn’t fiddling with her mixer, or loading a stubborn loop device, or feeding layers of melody into an arpeggiator. Such things exist: clearly, there’s a market among players who prefer chords instead. She namechecked “aspirational hipsters,” including the guy at the corner bar who’s on the take more than he’s on the make.

“Wherefore art thou, Doppio?” she posed to another would-be romantic doofus. Even the simpler, techier, disco-oriented numbers were laced with taunts and sarcasm, particularly Stomach It and Your Life Is a Lie, among other tracks from her 2016 album Tempo. Toward the end of the show, she was joined by cellist Andrea Lee for a moody Russian border-rock ballad from the 2014 album Krai, and then soul singer Sarah Lucas, who belted out one of the more pop-oriented electronic numbers. Bell encored with a vaudevillian piano tune about finding romance on the L train, which she’d written in 2006 for the Rockwood Music Hall open mic. Who knew there was once such a thing – and who knew that somebody who played there would someday headline at Lincoln Center.

This year’s American Songbook series continues to venture much further afield than the theatre music and pop hits from the 1930s and 40s that it was created for almost twenty years ago. There are two Kaplan Penthouse shows next week that deserve special mention: on Tuesday, March 28 at 8 PM, the Cactus Blossoms, who have an eerie resemblance to the Everly Brothers, bring their rapturous harmonies and disconsolate Americana ballads. And the following night, March 29, powerhouse Ghanian-born oldschool soul belter Ruby Amanfu leads her band.

Looking Back at Some Wild String Madness at Barbes

Violist/composer Leanne Darling is the rare stellar classical musician who can school you with her improvisations. In the early part of this decade, she made a mark as part of the ambitious, dazzlingly eclectic Trio Tritticali. As she proved in that group, she’s as at home with latin and Middle Eastern music, string metal and funk as she is with the classics she was trained to play. She has a flair for quirky, sometimes hilarious arrangements of pop and rock hits. Much as she can be very entertaining, she can also be very poignant: it wouldn’t be overhype to put her on the same page with Jessica Pavone and Ljova Zhurbin.

The last time she was onstage and this blog was in the house, it was last year at Barbes and she was playing with wild chamber ensemble Tom Swafford’s String Power. And it was 4/20. But as much as there was a lot of improvisation going on, it wasn’t a 4/20 kind of show: everybody was pretty much on the same page. Considering how much time has passed since then, it’s hard to remember who was onstage other than the violinist/bandleader, Darling, and bassist Dan Loomis. Her old Trio Tritticali cello bandmate Loren Dempster, maybe? Patti Kilroy on violin, if memory serves right, with a handful of other string players? Regardless, the performance represented everybody well.

They opened with a striking, emphatically swaying baroque number – Pachelbel, maybe? – with a series of tightly wound solos and cadenzas from throughout the group. Swafford’s arrangement of the Velvets classic Venus in Furs was closer to Vivaldi than Lou Reed, full of neat counterpoint and polyrhythms that took on a menacing swirl as the individual group members diverged from the center, Swafford taking a shivery, slithery solo that would have made John Cale smile.

The first of Darling’s arrangements, Boogie Wonderland, was the funnest part of the evening. It’s surprising that only a few punk bands have covered it. Darling’s chart turned it into a constantly shifting exchange of voices. Later in the set she and the group had fun with another one of her charts, turning a schlocky dance-pop hit by Muse into something approaching Radiohead. And Bohemian Rhapsody was as over-the-top hilarious as it possibly could have been, as ridiculously fun as the Main Squeeze Orchesta’s accordion version. That kind of insanity aside, the high point of the evening was Darling’s arrangement of the Mohammed Abdel Wahab Egyptian classic Azizah.

If memory serves right – a dubious proposition at this point – they might have done a Mingus tune, a twisted mashup of psychedelia and bluegrass, and something that sounded like My Brightest Diamond without lyrics but wasn’t. Much as this is Swafford’s project, Darling played an important part in it, and her own groups are just as much fun. If you’re wondering why this blog would wait this long to cover the show, it’s because Darling had a Williamsburg gig scheduled for this week that apparently got cancelled: watch this space for upcoming performances. 

Agnes Obel Brings Her Creepy Waltzes to the West Village Saturday Night

Multi-keyboardist/singer Agnes Obel writes broodingly catchy songs that span from minimalist chamber pop to more ornate art-rock. She loves waltz time: most of the songs on her new album Citizen of Glass, streaming at Spotify, have a slow 3/4 pulse. David Lynch has given her his imprimatur, which makes sense, although as a point of reference, she’s closer to Basia Bulat than Julee Cruise. Obel’s got a New York gig this Saturday night, March 11 at the Poisson Rouge at 7:30 PM. Advance tix are $20.

Obel plays all the keyboards on the album other than Daniel Matz’s trautonium, an early analog synthesizer that sounds like a chorus of shortwave radios. Kristina Koropecki’s alternately swooping and dancing cello multitracks add lushness and lustre to the moodily waltzing opening number, Stretch Your Eyes: it wouldn’t be out of place as a backing track on a classic 90s RZA Wu-tang joint.

Familiar has the…ummm…familiar feel of an icy 90s stainless-steel-counter club trip-hop number, like Portishead with guy/girl vocals: it’s likely that Obel is simply multitracking those harmonies with a pitch pedal. To her credit, Obel writes instrumentals as well as vocal numbers; the first of these, Red Virgin Soil is a hypnotically circling minor-key, cello-driven waltz.

A more stately piano waltz, It’s Happening Again has a distantly troubled, hazy Marissa Nadler-esque vibe, a look over the shoulder at a haunted past. Obel also draws comparisons to Nadler over 3/4 cadences throughout Stone, which  brings to mind Philip Glass’ film work.

Trojan Horses is the album’s best and creepiest track, in the same vein as Clint Mansell’s most ominously circular film scores. “The end of time has just begun, I hear it call your name,” Obel soberly intones early in the title track, the most minimalist but arguably catchiest song here. That could also be said about Golden Green, a trance-inducing round with Bach-like echoes, Obel playing through a vibraphone patch. 

The album winds up with the melancholy, resonant piano instrumental Grasshopper and then Mary, a sad reminiscence that could be about a lesbian relationship, or maybe witchcraft, or maybe both. Once again, Obel’s signature allusiveness draws you in.

Art-Rock Bandleader Hilary Downes Releases a Searingly Metaphorical New Solo Album

From the late zeros to the early part of this decade, pianist Hilary Downes was frontwoman for the Snow, who rank with Changing Modes and Botanica as one of the greatest art-rock bands to call this city their home. Since then, Downes has hardly been idle, and she’s finally releasing her similarly brilliant debut as a solo bandleader, Secrets of Birds – streaming at Bandcamp – at Barbes this Saturday night, Jan 28 at 8 PM. Folk noir standout Jessie Kilguss guests on vocals; eclectic A-list accordionist Will Holshouser leads one of his many projects to open the night at 6. After the Barbes show, most of the crowd are heading over to Freddy’s for Robin Aigner‘s Leonard Cohen tribute night.

Downes has a distinctive voice – a crystalline, often swoony yet precise delivery – a laser-like sense for a mot juste and a penchant for grim metaphors and multiple meanings. Meaning, she doesn’t stop at double entendres. The band behind her rises to the occasion to create a lush backdrop for her sometimes elusive, sometimes crushingly direct narrratives.

The opening track is Caldera, an elegant but venomously interconnected series of mythological scenes: “One could predict that the love they felt was equal to the harm they could inflict,” Downes intones, hushed and deadpan. Jeffrey Schaeffer’s waves of cymbals and sardonic swoops from the string section – violinist Karl Meyer and cellist Sara Stalnaker – drive the point home at the end with piercing accuracy.

Downes brings her torchiest nuance to the swing shuffle Deep Well, awash in chilly water metaphors and nocturnal unease:

Would that she could hold the night
Cold and without wind
To hold all of it oh so tight
Until it let her in

Her vocals bring calm and tenderness alongside Mike Cohen’s lingering guitars in contrast with Meyer’s stark violin throughout the optimistic Americana-tinged ballad Hearts Plateau. Then the band picks up the pace with the steamy, bossa-tinged Masters of the Table, a feast of imagery that gives the bandleader a slam-dunk opportunity to flip the script. She’s a master of turning the tables on what you might expect.

Dylan Nowik’s growling, stately lead guitar rises over darkly baroque strings and Cohen’s noir-tinged jangle on The Owl, a majestic and subtly sardonic portrait of a predator. Downes pulls out all the stops in Canon of Proportions, a purposeful, backbeat-driven anthem that’s the key to the album’s bitter central narrative:

Left long shadows in the sand
His arms, wings of a plane
He was Davinci’s man
His soul dwarfed by his frame

Matt Brandau’s boomy bass kicks off the album’s best and most cruelly vivid song, The Gist. It wouldn’t be out of place on Portishead’s Live at Roseland album:

Lady luck, she found her wealth
Took it from her former self
Queen of the sky, queen of the plain
She made herself a nest where birds could lay

The band take their deepest plunge into noir on album’s title track: “Save me from these thoughts, divebomb every part,” Downes laments, yet she’s just as defiant: “I’m not afraid of the darkness in my way.” She ends the album with the death-fixated psychedelic soul ballad The Word and then the waltzing, surprisingly optimistic Rainbow. It’s only January, but we have a real contender for best original album of 2017 here.