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Tag: valerie kuehne

A Historic Marathon Weekend at Martin Bisi’s Legendary BC Studio

While booking agents clustered around the East Village at several marathon multiple-band bills this past weekend, another far more historic marathon was going on in a Gowanus basement. As chronicled in the documentary film Sound and Chaos: The Story of BC Studio, Martin Bisi has been recording and producing some of New York’s – and the world’s – edgiest music in that space for the past thirty-five years. A couple of years ago, a dreaded upmarket food emporium moved in, sounding an ominous alarm bell. Like a smaller-scale Walmart, when that chain shows up, the neighborhood is usually finished. And with rents skyrocketing and long-tenured building owners unable to resist the lure of piles of global capital, what’s left of the Gowanus artistic community is on life support.

BC Studio’s lease runs out next year. The historic space is where Bisi earned a Grammy for his work on Herbie Hancock’s single Rockit, where Sonic Youth, the Dresden Dolls and innumerable other defiantly individualistic bands made records, and where a sizeable percentage of the foundation of hip-hop was born. If there’s any artistic space in Brooklyn that deserves to be landmarked, this is it.

This past weekend, to celebrate BC Studio’s 35th anniversary, the producer invited in several of the most noteworthy acts who’ve recorded over the years, to collaborate and record material for a celebratory anthology. Both a Sonic Youth (Bob Bert) and a Dresden Doll (Brian Vigliione) did and lent their eclectic pummel behind the drumkit to several of the acts. It was a quasi-private event: media was invited (look for Beverly Bryan‘s insightful upcoming piece at Remezcla). Bisi also spilled the beans and invited the crowd at his Williamsburg gig this past week, and from the looks of it, some of that younger contingent showed up to see some of the more memorable acts who’ve pushed the envelope, hard, over parts of the last four decades there. It wasn’t a concert in the usual sense of the word, but it was a rare chance for an adventurous crowd beyond Bisi’s own vast address book to watch him in action. And while he’d fretted out loud about keeping everything on schedule, that hardly became an issue, no surprise since he knows the room inside out. The most time-consuming activity other than the recording itself was figuring out who needed monitors, and where to put them.

Historically speaking, the most noteworthy event of the entire weekend was the reunion of Live Skull, who were essentially a harder-edged counterpart to Sonic Youth back in the 80s. One of their guitarists, Tom Paine couldn’t make it, but his fellow guitarist Mark C, bassist Marnie Greenholz Jaffe and drummer Rich Hutchins made their first public performance together since 1988, in this very same space. Methodically, through a series of takes, they shook off the rust, the guitar lingering uneasily and then growling over the band’s signature anthemic postupunk stomp. Watching Greenholz Jaffe play a Fender with frets was a trip: in the band’s heyday, she got her signature swooping sound as one of very few rock players to use a fretless model. In a stroke of considerable irony, Mark C’s use of a synth in lieu of guitar on one number gave the band a new wave tinge very conspicuously absent from their influential mid-80s catalog. Both four- and six-string players sang; neither has lost any edge over the years. Greenholz Jaffe ended their last number by playing an ominous quote from Joy Division’s New Dawn Fades, arguably the weekend’s most cruelly apt riff.

Of the newer acts, the most striking was guitarist Adja the Turkish Queen, who splits her time between her more-or-less solo mashup of folk noir and the Middle East, and ferociously noisy, darkly psychedelic band Black Fortress of Opium. This time, she treated the crowd to an absolutely chilling, allusive trio of jangly, reverb-drenched Lynchian numbers: a brooding oldschool soul ballad, an opaquely minimalist theme that could have passed for Scout, and a towering art-rock anthem. Botanica’s Paul Wallfisch supplied a river of gospel organ, elegant piano and then turned his roto to redline on the last number, channeling Steve Nieve to max out its relentless menace.

Dan Kaufman and John Bollinger of Barbez – who have a long-awaited, Middle East conflict-themed new album due out this spring – were first in line Saturday morning. Bollinger switched effortlessly between drums, lingering vibraphone and a passage where he played elegantly soaring bass while Kaufman jangled and then soared himself, using a slide and a keening sustain pedal. Togther they romped through apprehensively scrambling postrock, allusively klezmer-tinged passages and elegaic, bell-toned cinematics.

Susu guitarist Andrea Havis and drummer Oliver Rivera Drew (who made a tight rhythm section with baritone guitarist Diego Ferri, both of whom play in Bisi’s European touring band) backed Arrow’s soaring frontwman Jeannie Fry through a swirl of post-MBV maelstrom sonics and wary, moodily crescendoing postpunk jangle. In perhaps the weekend’s best-attended set, Algis Kisys of Swans jousted with ex-Cop Shoot Cop bassist Jack Natz and drummer Jim Coleman for a ferocious blast through a hornet’s nest of needle-pinning fuzztones and boomoing low-register chords, followed by a gorgeously contrasting ambient soundscape by Dave W and Ego Sensation of White Hills. It was the weekend’s lone moment that looked back to Brian Eno, who put up the seed money to build the studio.

There were also a couple of performances that echoed the studio’s formative role as hip-hop crucible. The first was when Tidal Channel frontman Billy Cancel channeled the inchoate anger of the Ex’s G.W. Sok over Genevieve Kammel Morris’ electroacoustic keyboard mix. The second was former Luminescent Orchestrii frontman Sxip Shirey‘s New Orleans second line rap over the virtuosic fuzztone bass of Don Godwin, better known as the funkiest tuba player in all of Balkan music. Wallfisch was another guy who supplied unexpectedly explosive basslines when he wasn’t playing keys.

The rest of the material ranged from industrial, to cinematic (JG Thirlwell’s collaboration with Insect Ark frontwoman/composer Dana Schechter, bolstered by a full string section and choir), punk (Michael Bazini’s wry gutter blues remake of an old Louvin Brothers Nashville gothic song) and to wind up the Sunday portion, an unexpectedly haunting, epic minor-key jam eventually led by Bisi himself, doing double duty on lead guitar and mixer.

Music continued throughout the afternoon and into Sunday night after this blog had to switch gears and move on to another marathon: the festivities included Bert backing Parlor Walls guitarist Alyse Lamb, an Alice Donut reunion of sorts and a set by Cinema Cinema. As much a fiasco as Globalfest turned out to be that night, the wiser option would have been to stay put and make an entire weekend out of it. As Kammel Morris put it, Bisi should host a slumber party next year.

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The 50 Best Albums of 2015

Seven or eight years ago, everyone was predicting the demise of the album. That hasn’t happened, and as long as we have recording technology, it won’t. A few other predictions from the past decade, however, have come true. Albums these days tend to be shorter, and artists are releasing fewer of them. And as a result, they’re consistently better, since acts are no longer contractually obliged to record labels to churn out product regardless of whether or not they’ve got first-class material ready to go. A couple of artists on this list are on boutique labels, but everybody else is independent.

On this page you’ll find a link to stream each album in its entirety. Whenever possible, those links are to ad-free sites like Bandcamp or Soundcloud so you can multitask in comfort without having to ride the fader to mute the ads. Considering the vast number of albums released in any calendar year, you shouldn’t regard this list as gospel. It is, however, an informed survey based on careful triage followed by a sampling of several thousand releases, and then a locked-in, analytical listen to the best 500 or so, from this past January up to the present date. A LOT of time went into this. For purposes of keeping the list under control, none of the many thousands of excellent jazz, classical and avant garde releases are represented here. Realistically, there’s a limit on how much territory a single blog can cover.

The one collection that packed the most mighty wallop – a pretty quiet one, actually – and wins the title of best album of 2015 is Who’s Counting, by Rachelle Garniez. With gallows humor, terse piano, accordion and spare acoustic guitar, it’s the New York songwriter’s shortest, most intimate and darkest album, a masterpiece of existentialist rock, grim explorations of mortality and global carnage juxtaposed with jaunty, sultry, cabaret-flavored set pieces. This is the second time a release by Garniez has topped this list: her 2007 album Melusine Years ranked #1 that year at this blog’s predecessor. Stream it at Spotify

As far as the rest of this rich crop is concerned, there’s no ranking here, since there are so many styles to choose from. Seriously: what’s better? Carol Lipnik‘s otherworldly art-rock, Twin Guns’ savage garage-punk and horror surf, or Hungrytown‘s magnificently pensive folk noir? Apples and oranges, right? These albums are all so good that they can stand alongside anything here.

Les Sans Culottes- Les Dieux Ont Soif/The Gods Are Thirsty
The New York-based faux-French rockers deliver their most satirical, bitingly hilarious, spot-on critique yet…in French, of course, with a harder, more guitar-fueled edge than the retro 60s psychedelic pop they’re known for. Stream it at Soundcloud

Regular Einstein – Chimp Haven
Velvet-voiced, wickedly lyrical janglerock songwriter Paula Carino is another artist who topped the Best Albums of the Year list at this blog’s predecessor. In her case, that release was 2010’s Open on Sunday. This is her first new one – since the 90s, in fact -with her original New York band, packed with delicious double entendres, bittersweet narratives and tricky time signatures. Stream it at Bandcamp

The Bright Smoke – Terrible Towns
Haunting singer/guitarist Mia Wilson’s full-length debut with this atmospheric, blues-infused art-rock project ranks with Joy Division for angst-fueled, white-knuckle intensity. Stream it at Bandcamp

The Sideshow Tragedy Capital
Guitarist/frontman Nathan Singleton brings a ferocious, bitterly apocalyptic lyrical sensibility to his fiery gutter-blues band. Stream it at Bandcamp

Charming Disaster – Love, Crime & Other Trouble
Jeff Morris of the phantasmagorical Kotorino and Ellia Bisker of dark chamber pop band Sweet Soubrette join forces on their debut full-length release, a lyrically and historically rich mix of murder ballads and tales of relationships gone spectacularly wrong. Stream it at Bandcamp

Carol Lipnik – Almost Back to Normal
The best album by the best singer on this list, a launching pad for her spectacular four-octave vocal range, backed by luminous, hypnotic piano from Matt Kanelos and strings by Jacob Lawson. Allusive apocalyptic themes of natural and manmade disaster and post-9/11 terror linger in the distance. Stream it at Mermaidalley.com

Ember Schrag – The Folkadelphia Sessions
Hypnotically Beatlesque art-rock, smoldering Macbeth-inspired narratives and a killer Great Plains gothic anthem by the style’s most lyrical and distinctive practitioner. Stream and download it free from the Folkadelphia page

Twin Guns – The Last Picture Show
A mighty leap for the ferocious power trio, including but not limited to their Cramps-style stomp. This one’s a lot more psychedelic and noir surf-oriented. Stream it at Bandcamp

Lorraine Leckie & Pavel Cingl – The Raven Smiled
Spare and surreal yet majestically enveloping art-rock and Slavic folk noir sounds from the Canadian gothic songstress and Czech violin wizard. Stream it at Bandcamp

Rachel Mason – The Lives of Hamilton Fish
One of the darkest albums on this list, this lush, evocative mix of historically-inspired janglerock and folk noir traces the seeemingly unconnected lives of two early 20th century figures who shared the same name: a serial killer and the scion of a famous New York political legacy. Stream it at Bandcamp

King Raam – A Day & a Year
A majestic, brooding Iranian art-rock record by the pseudonymous expat baritone crooner and bandleader. Lyrics in Persian. Stream it at Soundcloud

Fernando Viciconte – Leave the Radio On
The noir rock bandleader originally hails from Argentina; this haunted, doomed concept album, with significant contributions from REM’s Peter Buck and others, could be the great lost Steve Wynn release. Stream it at Bandcamp

Litvakus– Raysn: The Music of Jewish Belarus
A rousing, exhilarating mix of rare Jewish dance numbers,lively originals and morose folk tunes from the badlands of Polesia, in the corner where Belarus, Poland, Latvia and the Ukraine meet. One of the best party albums on this list. Stream it at Bandcamp

Raya Brass Band – Raya
Another awesome party album, the third release by the New York Balkan group is their most original, stylistically and emotionally diverse one yet, incorporating Ethiopian and latin sounds into their rapidire chromatics. Stream it at Bandcamp

Tipsy Oxcart – Upside Down
A fat rock rhythm section anchors these deliriously edgy minor-key Balkan, Turkish and Jewish themes and originals. Stream it at Bandcamp

Marianne Dissard – Cologne Vier Takes
The southwestern gothic/art-rock chanteuse and bandleader at the top of her uneasy game, in a mix of richly atmospheric yet intimate versions from her darkly lyrical catalog. Lyrics in French. Stream it at Bandcamp

Tom Warnick & the World’s Fair – Side Effects
The well-loved noir rock cult figure turns in a characteristically diverse mix of ghoulabilly, noir swing, soul and blues, all with his signature black humor and a luridly smoky band behind him. Stream it at Spotify

Matt Keating – This Perfect Crime
Getting away with murder is the loosely interconnecting theme on this typically diverse blend of janglerock, Stonesy stomp, Americana and soul-infused sounds, all with Keating’s richly sardonic, literate lyricism. Stream it at Mattkeating.com

Tracy Island – War No More
The long-awaited full-length debut from captivating singer/multi-instrumentalist Liza Garelik Roure – former leader of deviously psychedelic popsters Liza & the WonderWheels – is her catchiest and most pensively colorful yet, fueled by husband Ian Roure’s sizzling lead guitar. Stream it at Lizasongs.com

Bliss Blood & Al Street – Unspun
The iconic noir torch song heroine builds lowlit, lurid, delectably lyrical ambience in an intimate duo recording with her longtime flamenco-inspired six-string guy. Stream it at Bandcamp

Orphan Jane – A Poke in the Eye
Deviously witty, creepy noir cabaret and circus rock from this irrepressibly theatrical, Brecht/Weill-inspired New York crew. Stream it at Bandcamp

The Universal Thump – Walking the Cat
Famously recorded at Abbey Road Studios, frontwoman/keyboardist Greta Gertler has never written with greater wit or purist pop chops than she does here with her lush chamber pop/art-rock project. Stream it at Bandcamp

Sarah Kirkland Snider – Unremembered
The most lavishly orchestrated album on this list features vocals from Padma Newsome and Shara Worden throughout a mix of brooding, sweeping art-rock reflections on harrowing childhood experiences and similar trauma. Stream it at Bandcamp

Goddess – Paradise
The latest release by the phantasmagorical New York art-rock band captures them in creepily enveloping psychedelic mode. Stream it at Bandcamp

Bobtown – A History of Ghosts
Eerie, sepulcural Appalachian folk tunes, creepy newgrass, retro soul, murder ballads, black humor galore and exquisite four-part harmonies from the band that might be the best folk noir act around. Stream it at Bobtownmusic.com

Mike RimbaudPut That Dream in Your Pipe and Smoke It
Yet another provocative, surrealistically lyrical, tight powerpop and retro new wave record from one of the most fearlessly funny, spot-on chroniclers of post-9/11 global society anywhere. Stream it at Spotify

Hungrytown – Further West
The most elegantly arranged and arguably best album by poignant Americana songstress Rebecca Hall and multi-instrumentalist Ken Anderson’s plaintive folk noir band Stream it at Spotify

The Sway Machinery – Purity & Danger
One of the great guitar albums on this list, this richly textured, intricately arraanged, soaring collection of anthems sees the band venturing further from desert rock toward cantorially-inspired psychedelia. Stream it at Spotify

The TarantinosNYC – Surfin’ the Silver Screen
Catchy, fun, vividly cinematic surf rock, spy themes and psychedelic soul from one of NYC’s most original instrumental units. Stream it at Spotify

Dalava – their debut album
Guitar polymath Aram Bajakian and his haunting singer wife Julia Ulehla combine to reinvent stark traditional Moravian themes with an electric edge. Stream it at Bandcamp  

Patricia Santos – Never Like You Think
The auspicious, intense, eclectic soul-infused debut by the charismatic cello rocker and Kotorino member. Stream it at Bandcamp

Eleni Mandell – Dark Lights Up
Los Angeles noir soul, bittersweet torch song and Americana by an icon of dark retro songcraft. Stream it at Spotify

The Whiskey Charmers – their debut album
Twin Peaks C&W, Appalachian gothic, dark blues and jangly rock from this shadowy, female-fronted Detroit dark Americana band. Stream it at Thewhiskeycharmers.com

Figli di Madre Ignota – Bellydancer
High-energy, Gogol Bordello-esque circus rock and Romany punk songs with hilarious, satirical lyrics in Italian and English. Stream their “spaghetti Balkan” sounds at Soundcloud

The Frank Flight Band – The Usual Curse
The British counterpart to Blue Oyster Cult reach back into the vaults for this haunted mix of Doorsy art-rock, shapeshifting psychedelia and unexpectedly macabre gothic sounds. Stream it at cdbaby

Dawn Oberg – Bring
The irrepressible parlor pop pianist/chanteuse at the top of her sardonic, lyrically rich game in this mix of personality portraits and psychopathological analysis. Stream it at Dawnoberg.com

Jennifer Hall – her debut ep
An intriguing, auspicious mashup of noir soul and art-rock from the powerfully nuanced Chicago song stylist and her excellent, eclectic band. Stream it at Spotify

The Grasping Straws – their debut album
Edgy songwriter/guitarist Mallory Feuer’s snarling, hard-hitting, scruffy, defiantly lyrical first full-length effort goes in a more straightforward, less jazz-inspired direction than the band’s initial ep. Stream it at Bandcamp

Ben Von Wildenhaus– II
Southwestern gothic, slinky bellydancer noir themes and Twin Peaks atmospherics from the loopmusic guitar master and esteemed noir soundscaper. Stream it at Soundcloud

Naked Roots Conducive – Sacred521
Cellist Valerie Kuehne and violinist Natalia Steinbach’s tormentedly cinematic, surrealistically intense art-rock dives menacingly and blackly amusingly into themes of alienation and ahwer despair. Stream it at Bandcamp

Lions – their debut ep
A slinky, trippy mix of Ethiopian grooves, Israeli stoner rock jams and cinematic themes. Stream it at Bandcamp

George Usher & Lisa Burns – The Last Day of Winter
Intense, autumnal purist powerpop, blue-eyed soul and psych-pop tunesmithing from two highly regarded, veteran songcrafters. Stream it at Spotify

Banda de los Muertos – their debut album
Epic, ornate, richly arranged, reinvented Mexican brass band ranchera themes and sweepingly majestic, blazing originals from trombonist Jacob Garchik’s imaginative big brass ensemble. Stream it at Spotify 

Spanglish Fly – New York Boogaloo
A hard-hitting, wickedly arranged, cleverly crafted update on classic 60s salsa soul from this irrepressible, danceable, psychedelic New York outfit. Stream it at Bandcamp

Curtis Eller & the New Town Drunks – Baudelaire in a Box: Songs of Anguish
Intriguing new translations of classic, surrealistically creepy Baudelaire poems set to starkly bluesy, phantasmagorical tunes by the charismatic circus rock bandleader and the Eastern Seaboard noir group. Stream it at Bandcamp

Elisa Flynn – My Henry Lee
The darkly eclectic songwriter and hauntingly luminous chanteuse’s most spare, terse album blends starkly funny individualist anthems with more pensive material and a classic murder ballad. Stream it at Bandcamp

Fireships – their debut album
Imaginatively arranged Americana rock and chamber pop with a fearlessly aware, Dylanesque, populist lyricism. Stream it at Bandcamp

The Amphibious Man – Witch Hips
Enigmatically lo-fi, twistedly Lynchian, surf-tinged reverb rock. Like nothing else on this list and yet in a way like an awful lot on this list, in terms of general darkness. Stream it at Bandcamp

The Honeycutters – Me Oh My
Oldschool female-fronted honkytonk with a newschool, sharply literate, defiantly populist lyrical edge. Stream it at Spotify

The Old Ceremony – Sprinter
Folk noir and serpentine, intricately arranged, Lynchian art-rock and chamber pop from Django Haskins’ darkly eclectic band. Stream it at youtube – but BE CAREFUL – a loud audio starts immediately when you click the link, mute the sound before you do

For more yummy clickbait, other 2015 lists here include the forthcoming playlist at the Best Songs of 2015 page and the Best New York Concerts of 2015 page.

An Intensely Enigmatic New Album from Art-Rock Duo Naked Roots Conducive

Violin/cello duo Naked Roots Conducive – Natalia Steinbach and Valerie Kuehne – come out of the far side of the avant garde, where music meets performance art. But wait wait wait – their new album Sacred521 is an elegant, plaintively composed mix of attractively tuneful shortscale neo-baroque and neoromantic compositions interspersed with the kind of haggard, assaultive kind of improvisational noise the two may be best known for. Both artists sing, strongly, dramatically and fearlessly: scaramouche but no fandango. If circus rock is your thing, or if you ever scoured every used vinyl store in town for the first ELO album and then finally caved in to the lure of some sketchy Russian site and downloaded it, this is for you. The pair’s next gig is on July 16 at 7:30 PM at ABC No Rio on a bill with string noise/movement crew Uniska Wahala Kano and performance artists Tif Robinette a.k.a. Agrofemme (who once did something akin to what Ivich did in L’Age de Raison), Jodie Lyn-Kee-Chow and Rudi Salpietra. Cover is a sliding scale starting at $3.

The new album is available both as a download from Bandcamp, where it’s streaming, and as a handmade limited edtion cd. It immediately raises the question of whether this is all just a ruse, a lure to get you to think that they actually like playing arrestingly carnivalesque art-rock themes in the same vein as Rasputina, and then to draw you into one of their live shows where they can bludgeon you. Whether or not that’s true, in either case, it’s worth the risk.

The album’s opening song is Sadness/Madness, establishing a – gasp – warmly Bach-like theme exploring a hope/despair dichotomy. The second track, In the Cellar is a creepy, Halloweenish chromatic waltz where Kuehne indulges her turophile (google it) fixation. fueled by Steinbach’s shivery staccato attack – that, or maybe camembert.

Happy Father’s Day in the Name of Science is an alternately doomed and triumphant existentialist mini-suite built around an explosively noisy interlude, Kuehne’s spiky rhythm underpinning Steinbach’s resonant longform lines until things get crazy. Nameless Story has a a catchy noir cabaret/circus rock strut: again, Rasputina comes to mind. Eating Dirt sounds pretty much like that until a balletesque 6/8 theme that gives way to ambience and back and forth: these two pack a lot into a single song.

“Everybody has their own fucked up opinions, wouldn’t it be nice if I had just the one to hold onto,” Steinbach ponders on WIBN: by now what’s been so far an emotional rollercoaster ride has become one pissed-off album. Happy Things is the most plainspoken and harrowing, and cruelly sarcastic, and maybe ironically its catchiest number: Finally, seven tracks in, Steinbach lets down her guard: “I need you to know this pain is for real…I can’t take any more bruises.” The album ends up with Demons No. 1 – a manic-depressive juxtaposition of a couple of contrasting mantras – and its second part, an epic that ends 180 degrees from where you might think it would – or does it? Yikes! If they want, Steinbach and Kuehne can write these acerbic, smartly anthemic themes til the cows come home, score a bunch of indie films and live happily ever after…or they can hang on the fringes and have all kinds of noisy fun. Or maybe both.

Challenging and Intriguing Projects From Irrepressible Cellist Valerie Kuehne

Cellist Valerie Kuehne has made a name for herself by constantly touring and gigging at the outer fringes of improvised and experimental music. She may not be throwing wrenches into the system, but she’s always throwing something. She can spin a gorgeously lyrical phrase one second and then shatter her bow with a murderous swipe of low-register murk the next. Her music can be assaultive, even tortured, but also wickedly satirical and unselfconsciously playful, like a cat reveling in batting a breadbag twisty around the floor. Her sensibility is often inchoate and messy, fueled by anger and alienation, but also a sobering awareness that evades an awful lot of people who call themselves artists. She has a show coming up on April 4 at 7:30 PM at Dixon Place Theatre at 161 Chrystie St. north of Delancey with her uneasy neoromantic project Naked Roots Conducive with violinist Natalia Steinbach, and probably a small army of special guests, which is typical of bills Kuehne plays on. This happens to be the release show for her new “performance opera” Sacred521, which ostensibly “explores the beauty and terror of personal disclosure and visceral catharsis in individual experience.” Advance tix are $12.

Kuehne’s latest release is her Suite for Solo Cello, a starkly acerbic, multitracked five-part work available as a name-your-price download at Bandcamp. Played live, it would require at least a cello trio. It’s a good capsulization of what Kuehne is all about, in introspective mode, drawing on minimalism and spectral music as much as the avant garde, with abundant use of microtones and extended technique.

It rises out of a sideswiping tone poem of sorts to several crescendos which hint, almost agonizingly, at a resolution. But that never arrives. Slithery high harmonics introduce brooding, rain-drenched atmospherics; a staggering, sawing march hits an axe-murderer stomp and quickly subsides.

From an uneasily hazy atmosphere, she returns to a march, but with a slow, aching quality. From there Kuehne lets a broodingly suspenseful ambience linger and then abruptly flips the script, taking an eerily dissociative pizzicato stroll. And then it’s over, unless you count the drolly layered spoken-word passage at the end.

Kuehne is also on the shortlist of the world’s most entertaining and insightful music writers. Her album-a-day project awhile back is inspiring, to say the least, a challenge to anybody who’s ever spent the early morning hours in the dim light of a laptop trying to make sense of what they just heard.

A Classic Small Beast Reunion of Sorts

[cross-post from NY Music Daily’s sister blog Lucid Culture]

Is it possible to be nostalgic for something that happened just four years ago? Is nostalgia a healthy emotion to begin with? Probably not. But with today being the four-year anniversary of Small Beast, seeing that date memorialized last week upstairs at the Delancey brought back fond memories of the weekly series’ glory days here in New York. Botanica frontman Paul Wallfisch – this era’s finest rock keyboardist – founded the night in 2008 as a solo residency, followed by an endless cavalcade of some of New York’s, and the world’s, finest and darkest rock acts. This past Monday’s show was a fond reminder of what an amazing run Small Beast had up to the summer of 2010, when Wallfisch took his show on the road to Germany. He now runs the State Theatre in Dortmund, which also serves as the European base for the Beast.

The night opened explosively with Valerie Kuehne. She’s part punk classical cellist, part performance artist, but her performance art isn’t the foofy, mannered kind – it’s oldschool 80s style and it has fangs. And it’s hilarious. Whether or not Kraft pasteurized processed American cheese qualifies as food, or how yoga has been transformed from oasis of relaxation to yuppie clusterfuck, might seem obvious. But Kuehne’s rapidfire rants about both were irresistibly funny all the way through to the punchlines…and then she played a roaring solo cello piece that became surprisingly lyrical, as violinist Jeffrey Young strolled in through the audience, and then she and accomplice Esther Neff  donned masks and handed out instructions to the audience. Which turned out to be a cruel kind of dada – watching the crowd make fools of themselves, looking up at them from the floor of the club (music bloggers aren’t immune to being spoofed) was almost as funny. Then she and Neff ran off to Cake Shop, where they were doing another show.

Martin Bisi cautioned before his duo improvisation with fellow guitarist Ernest Anderson that it might be “sleepy.” Nightmarish, maybe, but definitely not sleepy: fifteen seconds into it, and Bisi hit a ringing tritone and then sent it spiraling devilishly through the mix as Anderson anchored the ambience with keening layers of sustain from his ebow. Meanwhile, Bisi slammed out chords when he wasn’t building a murky, echoey cauldron of implied melody. And then in a raised middle finger to the sound system, he stuck his guitar in his amp and mixed the noise through a labyrinth of bleeding, pulsing effects. Although he’s not known as a jam guy – epic dark songcraft is his thing – he’s actually a tremendously entertaining improviser who never plays the same thing the same way twice. Jamming out soundscapes is probably the last thing he or anybody who knows his music would expect him to be doing, but this was good trippy fun.

Roman Wallfisch was the star of this show. The guitarist son of the night’s impresario has been playing banjo for a couple of weeks now, and he’s already figured out all sorts of cool voicings mixing old folk tropes with new rock ones. He casually made his way through a couple of shambling narratives, Monsoon Season and Parts of Speech, both songs showing off a wryly surreal lyrical sensibility and a wicked sense of melody: the apple obviously didn’t fall far from the tree. Oh yeah – in case you’re wondering, Roman Wallfisch is fourteen years old.

And the Wiremen – in a duo performance with guitarist/bandleader Lynn Wright and violinist Jon Petrow – could have been anticlimactic, but they weren’t.  Wright’s plaintive English/Spanish vocals over broodingly jangly, reverb-toned southwestern gothic melodies were as surrealistically dusky as ever. Wright held the crowd rapt with a quiet new song and ended the set with Sleep, which seems to be a cautionary tale, Petrow’s even more reverb-drenched lines raising the sepulchral ambience as high as anything sepulchral can go.

Guitarist Alexander Hacke and electric autoharpist Danielle Depicciotto treated the crowd to an equally brooding southwestern gothic ballad and then Cuckoo, the old Austrian folk song, complete with yodeling. Noir cabaret personality Little Annie was supposed to be next, but she was under the weather, so pianist Wallfisch was  joined by another brilliant dark chanteuse, Sally Norvell, whose takes of three haunting tracks from her duo album with him a few years back were lustrous and riveting, running the gamut from joyously torchy and seductive to funereal.

Wallfisch wrapped up the night with the kind of intuitively eclectic mix that defined the Beast for a couple of years, capturing the raw innocence of the Kinks’ Waterloo Sunset and the apprehension of Dylan’s Blind Willie McTell before a wry Little Annie Christmas song, the furtive gypsy punk of the Botanica song Money (from their latest, towering, intense album What Do You Believe In) and then the scorching gypsy punk of How, a crowd-pleaser from the old days. Petrow made another ghostly cameo or two. By now, it was after one in the morning, so Wallfisch wrapped up the evening with the nocturne Past One O’Clock (an audience request), the towering anthem Judgment (centerpiece of the new album) and a gorgeously brooding new number inspired by – among other things – the college kid in New Jersey who lept to his death from a bridge after being outed as gay. If there’s any lesson to take away from this show, it’s carpe diem: if there’s a scene this vital that you hang out in, don’t hide yourself at home, even if it’s Monday night. It could be gone sooner than you think.

Clever, Fun, Theatrically Surreal Sounds from Valerie Kuehne

Cellist Valerie Kuehne’s new album Phoenix Goes Crazy is intended as a spoof of early 20th century classical lieder and is dedicated to a cat who’s sadly no longer with us. The whole thing is streaming at Kuehne’s Bandcamp site. You could call this classical punk, or punk classical. Although her previous album, Dream Zoo was a lot louder and more assaultive, this one’s more punk in terms of focus and humor. Like most serious cellists, Kuehne has classical training, something that shows itself most clearly in the unselfconsciously beautiful, swirly second half of the opening track where she blends with the violins of Natalia Steinbach and Jeffrey Young, Jonathan Wood Vincent’s accordion and Sean Ali’s bass. The first half of that song is totally punk, with sarcastic vocals and cheap jokes over a an offhandedly nasty staccato groove.

The rest of the album is “B-sides, rarities, and a previously unreleased group improvisation,” and it’s a lot of fun. There’s 98 savage cellopunk seconds worth of Pills, then a tongue-in-cheek spoken word-and-atmospherics piece, Billy and the Clown, with a nod to The Gift, by the Velvets. The Waldo Jeffers character in this one has a childhood obsession with clowns, then a traumatic experience which he must expiate in order to gain closure. Will he graduate from clown school? Will he finally come face to face with his nemesis? No spoilers here.

After that there’s a sort of minimialist hardcore song that delivers a nightmare scenario “in an abandoned Taco Bell with no roof, surroundeed by cats and they’ll all be meowing, meowing, meowing!!!” Long, Long Sleep nicks the hook from Signs of the Zodiac by cello rockers Rasputina and turns it into what seems to be a parody of a High Romantic death song. The album ends with fourteen minutes of the previously unreleased group improvisation, a twisted and very funny commentary on fussy trendoid food obsessions and death. As a surreal litany of menu options winds down, the cast ponder other implications of their final meal: one insists on nostalgia, another insists on having her cats there, another “wouldn’t want to meet Jesus when I’m fat.” Kuehne gigs around town, and far outside of town, with a marathon persistence to rival B.B. King in his most energetic years. Fridays she’s often at Spectrum, where she books a lot of her Super Coda shows featuring a vast cast of names from both the past and future of the global avant garde. She’s also playing the big Small Beast reunion of sorts this coming Monday, Jan 7 at the Delancey, upstairs, probably around 9 PM.

Haunting Gothic Americana from Clara Engel

Toronto dark folk songwriter Clara Engel has put out a series of excellent singles and short albums over the past several years: her new one, The Lovebird’s Throat is her best yet. Four track on it, all of them streaming at her Bandcamp site.

Not Knowing is just spare skeletal fingerpicked guitar and vocals. It’s the closest thing here to your standard singer/songwiter fare, but it works because it’s a mystery. The person Engel’s so worried about could be lost in the woods, washed into the river…or on their way back to to the death camp with some potatoes or a barrel of kale. Song to the Sea Witch (Disembody My Voice) is a suicide ballad that vividly calls to mind early Patti Smith. Engel artfully adds reverberating, atmospheric layers of acoustic and electric guitar, keys and bells as the song builds from hypnotically haunting to imploring and insistent:

A girl is crying in the racket of my nerves…
Disembody my voice
Let the river fly up to the stars
And I’ll never look back
And I’ll never look down

The two remaining tracks are even darker. Married to the Bone begins as a gothic folk dirge and then rises with Engel’s elegantly echoey, reverberating guitar lines against Humanwine drummer Nate Greenslit’s stark, funereal tom-tom beat and a relentlessly macabre low cello pedal line by the ubiquitously interesting Valerie Kuehne. Engel’s flurrying dead-girl choir midway through will make you jump because you’ll never know it’s coming. The final, slow anthem, Lovebirds sets Engel’s surreally menacing lyrics to stately broken chords played through awatery Leslie speaker effect, with pump organ, creepy music-box piano flourishes and spiky banjitar that mingles rustically into the mix. As gothic Americana goes, it doesn’t get much darker or more interesting than this.