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A Ferocious, Funny. Surreal New Album and a LES Show by the Charismatic Mary Spencer Knapp and Toot Sweet

To call Mary Spencer Knapp a force of nature really doesn’t do her justice. She will drop you in your tracks. The self-described accordion shredder is also a brilliant pianist, with a purposeful, bluesy streak. She’s a strong lyricist, she’s funny and she’s a whirlwind onstage. On the mic, she can move from a vengeful wail to a purr to something surreal and outer-dimensional, sometimes within the span of a few seconds, and make it seem completely natural. And there isn’t a style of music she can’t write: she’s played everything from Dominican folk to noir cabaret to the fringes of the avant garde.

Likewise, her new album Disco Eclipse with her band Toot Sweet – streaming at Bandcamp, blends new wave rock with cabaret, oldschool disco, soul music and a little performance art. The core of the group also includes Doug Berns on bass, Tyler Kaneshiro on trumpet and synth,and Javier Ramos on drums. They’re playing the album release show on March 31 at 8 PM at the small room at the Rockwood.

The album’s catchy, sarcastically strutting first song, Civilians comes across as a mashup of cabaret, the B-52s and early Talking Heads. It starts with a talk with the “drug counselor” and ends with Knapp bemoaning that “My grandfather killed civilians, I’m just one of seven billion.” In between songs, there are several playful miniatures. The best, titled Toot Suite, a wistful stroll with a tasty, torrential accordion solo and an ending that ’s too good to give away.

The soul-infused Northern Boulevard is even catchier: it’s a shout-out to a Queens neighborhood that starts with a rush to pick up a nameless injured person and then a wistful look back at a time before social media distractions:

There was something about living, living in the moment
I could achieve when I was there
There was something about sensing the world was ending
To free me from my usual affairs
There was something about making a saint of a man
Finding purpose in a good old laugh
There was something about living, living in the moment
I could achieve when I was there

Knapp’s full-throated voice, accordion and nostalgia for Old New York all bring to mind another first-rate, eclectic accordion-wielding songwriter, Rachelle Garniez.

Rolling on the Floor is a twisted, sultry cabaret-funk-punk tune about various situations which involve the floor, and also rolling:

She’s a manicured cutie
Big cat eyes with a bootie
Says she gonna give you triple X tonight
You want something more bovine?
You’re gonna have to draw the line

After the surreal stream-of-consciousness uke tune Fault Line, Bloody Murder is a surreal blend of Sergeant Pepper Beatles, the English Beat and no wave, set to a disco groove. Don’t you go running to mommy because “She’s a maleficent director, she’s gonna strut you and then she’ll cut you.”

In Rainy Day, Knapp builds a bouncy, bleakly surrealistic daydrunk scenario, followed by a trippy dub miniature. “I’ll make you sick of me,” is her vengeful mantra in the hypnotically hammering Playground Politics – and it gets more allusively vengeful from there.

Sway could be Laurie Anderson at her most rocking, while Bzzzness alternates variations on a slit-eyed boudoir theme with big crescendos from Knapp’s assertive gospel piano. The album’s final cut is the apocalyptic Tread Softly Epilogue. As diversely dramatic as these songs can be, they only hint at the kind of slinky valkyrie fury Knapp can work up onstage.

Oh yeah – Knapp was also a cast member in that popular Broadway show based on War and Peace.

Looking Forward and Back to a Couple of Tantalizing Album Cover Nights

An allstar cast of downtown New York talent got together this past August 27 at Hifi Bar, where they played Young Marble Giants’ cult favorite 1981 album Colossal Youth – right at the same time that the regrouped original band was doing the exact same thing at Royal Festival Hall in London. It’s not clear if the London show was recorded, but thanks to Elemental Films – who’ve also captured a ton of amazing, rare footage of Molly Ruth, the Shootout Band and many others – the night was immortalized, and you can watch it on youtube!

“In the year 1980, songs like Babe, by Styx and Lady, by Kenny Rogers were at the top of the pops…and this album was happening at the same time, something beautiful and stark and more powerful because it had such a sense of loneliness about it. Becuase of that, it has withstood the test of time. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to listen to Babe – I want to listen to Colossal Youth,“ organizer and Elk City forntwoman Renee Lobue explained with more sincerity than snark.

Without further ado, Lysa Opfer stepped to the mic for Searching for Mr. Right, guitarist Sam Weisberg supplying a spare proto-skronk as bassist Tom Shad held down a similarly stark reggae pulse in tandem with syndrum player Joe Fee. Shad, in particular, had a ball with Philip Moxhan’s incisive, all-over-the-place lines, pretty much note-for-note with the original, for the most part sticking to a biting, trebly tone. On guitar, Weisberg and Andy Wellington beefed up the originals, no surprise since they were using far better amps and a real sound system as opposed to a cheap four-track recorder. Speed the Plough‘s John Baumgartner supplied aptly swirly, noir-tinged organ lines when the songs required them. On the other hand, most of the singers – some of them guys – lent their own original style to the vocals rather than trying to match Alison Stottam’s muted, moody vocal delivery.

But many of those voices were as individualistic as hers, and made these new interpretations every bit as compelling as the originals. Paula Carino‘s assertively velvety vocals on Salad Days beat Stottam at her own game, a real treat. Earlier, Toot Sweet‘s Mary Spencer Knapp ramped up the angst over the stuttering bass and guitars on Constantly Changing. The Bush Tetras’ Cynthia Sley added color and dimension to the title track, and Lobue brightened up The Man Amplifier. Lobue, Carino, Opfer and Verena Wiesendanger joined voices at the end for a bittersweet take of Final Day. Even Hifi owner Mike Stuto – the man stoking the “starmaker machinery behind the unpopular songs,” as Kendall Meade recently put it – made a cameo on the mic midway through The Taxi.

Another cover night that could be off the hook happens this Monday, October 5 at 7:30 PM when a similarly talented cast including jazz and folk noir chanteuse Erica Smith and fiery, gospel-infused belter Lizzie Edwards play Paul McCartney’s Ram album all the way through at Bowery Electric. Shad being one of the masterminds of the Young Marble Giants night, it’s likely that he’ll be a big part of this too, alongside Charly Roth, the rare player who’s equally adept at drums and keyboards, plus a similarly strong band alongside them. Cover is $10.

Young Marble Giants on Both Sides of the Pond

What’s the most unlikely band reunion ever? The Velvet Underground? Or when Pink Floyd got back together for that live tv cameo? How about this August 27 at 7:30 PM, when Young Marble Giants will play their cult favorite 1981 album Colossal Youth at London’s Royal Festival Hall? There’s karmic justice, and no little irony in the fact that thirty-five years after they first broke up, the band are playing one of their biggest gigs ever. What’s probably just as unlikely is that they’d be together to do it at all. £17.50 balcony seats are still available for budget-minded London postpunk fans.

Meanwhile, on this side of the pond, a stellar and similarly unlikely collection of downtown New York rock talent are getting together at the exact same hour at Hifi Bar to play the album in its entirety. Springboarded by Elk City’s Renee LoBue, the performers include folk noir chanteuse Erica Smith, janglerock mastermind Paula Carino, the Bush Tetras’ Cynthia Sley, Toot Sweet‘s acerbic Mary Spencer Knapp, Speed the Plow‘s John and Toni Baumgartner, along with many, many others. This is a gig where there may be as many band members as audience members in the house.

The album itself is quirky, very humbly and rather primitively recorded, and an acquired taste for some. A favorite of college radio dj’s when it came out, it’s considered one of the foundations of lo-fi music in general. As precious and prissy as so much so-called bedroom pop is, it wouldn’t be a stretch to file the record within that genre. Stuart Moxham’s minimalist, tentative guitar and simple yet saturnine keyboards made an apt backdrop for frontwoman Alison Statton’s distinctive, unassuming, low-key vocals, punctuated by Moxham’s brother Philip’s incisive if similarly simple bass work. You can check it out – or revisit fond college dorm memories – at Spotify.

Speaking of performers who’re doing the tribute show, Smith and Knapp most recently shared the stage at 2A at the end of May, on a fantastic quadruplebill with American Ambulance‘s Pete Cenedella and host Monica “L’il Mo” Passin. Passin distinguished herself with her ability to shift seamlessly between innumerable styles, from Brill Building pop, to latin soul, rockabilly, oldschool C&W and rootsy bar-band rock. Her guitar playing was just as eclectic: she’s the rare player who can do a song solo acoustic, stick a solo in the middle and have it seem perfectly natural even without bass and drums.

Knapp’s accordion work was just as diverse, running the gamut from torchy French chanson, to enigmatic bedroom pop (if anybody on this bill really GETS Young Marble Giants, it’s her), ornately theatrical art-rock and an unexpected and very successful detour toward the avant garde. Passin playfully needled Cenedella for his handful of references to ganja, in several numbers from American Ambulance’s cult classic Streets of NYC album, a bittersweet look at uneasy teenage romance in New York in the late 70s. Which was funny, since Cenedella’s blend of twangy Americana and biting Graham Parker-esque proto new wave songcraft is the furthest thing from stoner music.

The star of the show was Smith, who held the audience rapt with a mix of new material and old favorites. As she told the crowd, her songs typically fit into three distinct categories: death songs, seduction songs and despair songs. An unexpectedly seductive number was the chilling, nocturnal Nashville, Tennessee, a stark waltz from Smith’s Snowblind album. Along with similarly spare, plaintive versions of the folk standards Pretty Saro and Wayfaring Stranger, she spun quietly through the wrenchingly poignant River King, a gently swaying, Fairport Convention-ish art-folk number with a knockout punch, a metaphorically loaded tale of snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. She also brought out a handful of new numbers: the night’s most impactful song was a brand-new one, Veterans of Foreign Wars, a brooding, suspensefully enveloping waltz with what could be a chilling allusion to the Eric Garner murder. Although Smith’s imagery is opaque and allusive – that’s the seduction thing going on – so you never know.

And after the four onstage had wrapped up their evening, the irrepressibly charming, ebullient, wickedly tight swing jazz harmony trio the Tickled Pinks lept onstage with their bassist and guitarist and kept the audience on the sunny side of the street with a brief set of standards. “They’re all the same song,” bandleader Karla Rose (of brilliant, psychedelic noir quartet Karla Rose & the Thorns) joked, but all that counterpoint, and all those harmonic leaps all over the place, aren’t exactly easy. But the trio sang as if they’d been doing this all their lives. Which they sort of have.

Passin’s next show upstairs at 2A is this August 30 at 9, where she switches to bass to play with countrypolitan chanteuse Drina Seay‘s fantastic noir-inclined band.