New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Tag: vera beren

Briana Layon & the Boys Bring Their Menacing, Heavy Intensity to Arlene’s

Briana Layon’s bio at her web page compares her to both the Runaways’ Cherie Currie and Jinx Dawson of Coven, which is ok for starters, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. The trouble with the current crop of women with big voices – and Layon has an epic one – is that so many of them are American Idol-ing it, all show, no substance, one watered-down gospel riff after another. Or even worse, they do the dorky SING-song-EY her-KY-jer-KY up-AND-down Tourette’s thing that spewed out from emo into the dogshit pile of Disney autotune pop. Briana Layon doesn’t go for that – it seems she’d rather be her own person. Which is why she’s not on American Idol. Briana Layon & the Boys, her smart, ferocious, blues and metal-infused heavy rock band, have a killer album, Touch and Go streaming at Bandcamp and a show at 7 PM on August 20 at Arlene’s for $5.

What’s coolest about the album is that a lot of these songs are long, with plenty of room for Layon to hit a bitter, gale-force wail and hang there, or for brilliant lead guitarist Chris DiBerardino to scorch the earth with a deep arsenal of stylistic assaults. The opening track is All Yours, a catchy three-minute bluesmetal tune, Layon bringing to mind two other distinctive, charismatic frontwomen, Spanking Charlene‘s Charlene McPherson and then Ann Wilson of Heart, rising to a searing wail at the end. The title track has DiBerardino delivering vamping, clustering early 70s riffage with a hint of funk and some cool, evilly chromatic Buck Dharma glissandos.

Pistolero could be a standout track from the first couple of AC/DC records, bassist Josh Castellano’s chords lurking at the bottom with solid drummer Vlad Hancu, who trades off with DiBerardino on the chorus. Teach Me is unexpectedly subtle, DiBerardino channeling Keith Richards with his catchy chords on the verse and then going to an Angus Young growl on the chorus, Castellano delivering a rare snappy bass solo that doesn’t suck.

Cut My Man opens with an icy, watery lead over a sketchy, muted riff, Layon joining in the ominous ambience and then rising toward murderous rage, airing out her wounded low range and in the process channeling the Sometime Boys‘ Sarah Mucho. They take it out as a waltzing danse macabre – this is just plain awesome, one of the best songs of the year.

Playing Dead is a menacingly elegant noir soul ballad in the Clairy Browne vein, Layon rising from an aptly ghostly purr to a roaring peak. Rope blends sludgy Spanking Charlene-style punk and fuzzy early 70s style metal riffage – ironically, it’s as close to “R&B” as Layon gets here. Sticky Wicket (meaning tight spot, a term taken from cricket, the British empire’s ancestor to baseball) is the closest thing to funkmetal here, DiBerardino capping it off with a gritty wah solo.

Castellano’s pitchblende Geezer Butler lines anchor a sweet, vintage Iron Maiden-style hook on Vanagloria – it would make a good three-minute-thirty track from Number of the Beast. Tell Me I’m Good blends jaunty flamencoesque flourishes from DiBerardino, a dancing pulse from the bass and Layon channeling her usual luridness.

Dear Friend starts out as a 6/8 soul ballad with organ lurking in the background, Layon putting a teens update on pensive Vera Beren-style theatrics – her shivery, low-key outro is just as chilling as her fullscale wail. The album peaks out with Looks Like Rain, which is not the Grateful Dead song but an eerily atmospheric art-metal piece that if you listen very closely sounds suspiciously like it might have had another life as a trip-hop pop song. It’s amazing what a tricky time signature and a great band can do for a tune.

A Grim Look into the Future from HUMANWINE

Boston’s best band for the better part of a decade and now based in Vermont, HUMANWINE play important, politically insightful, exhilarating Romany-flavored punk rock and noir cabaret. They’re the closest thing to the Clash or the Dead Kennedys that we have right now. Those comparisons are especially appropriate considering that HUMANWINE (a cryptic acronym for Humans Underground Making Anagrams Nightly While Imperialistic Not-Mes Enslave) don’t just write songs about doom and despair under an all-seeing Orwellian eye. The band’s core, frontwoman Holly Brewer and guitarist/keyboardist Matthew McNiss envision an alternate future that’s NOT a corporate fascist surveillance state. Since the band came up right after the Bush/Cheney coup d’etat in 2000, their response has been venomous, and sarcastic, and articulate right from the start. They see this happening in their own country, and they take it personally. More of us should.

Right now they have a characteristically creepy, carnivalesque new album, Fighting Naked, and an ep, Mass Exodus, up at their Bandcamp page as name-your-price downloads, as ominously entertaining as they are prophetic. The music on the album is intense, and feral, and anthemic, and the message is spot-on. Are we going to be hypnotized by the “hypocritical fascist porno priests on the tv selling you shit you don’t need, ” while we let the billionaires and their multinational cartels inch us closer and closer to fullscale slavery – or are we going to join forces, all of us, delete our Facebook accounts and then give Big Brother the boot? It’s our call.

Many of the corrosively propulsive narratives here are told from the point of view of exiles and freedom fighters battling a murderous occupation. Some are set in the imaginary fascist state of Vinland, which is basically the world taken forward a few years to where every move a person makes is recorded and watched. But as Brewer reminds on the live acoustic version of the catchy, defiant protest anthem 1st Amendment, surveillance can work both ways. Who’s watching the watchers?

The first track on the album is a macabre punkmetal waltz, UnEntitled States of Hysteria, Brewer’s machinegun vocals splattering a grim tableau of life under the occupation, with a snide outro that makes the connection between medieval witch trials and this era’s demonization of so-called terrorists. The next cut, Big Brother, a Middle Eastern-tinged punk tune, is more defiant and optimistic: when the “Eye of the pyramid is keeping track of your every move, every day your thoughts are all you got – so go and do what you gotta do.”

Tumbling drums – is that Brian Viglione or Nate Greenslit? – and McNiss’ murderously growing low-register guitar fuel the title track, another creepy waltz. Wake Up is next, a sarcastic, surreal lullaby that morphs into a viciously sarcastic faux military march, followed by a punk sea chantey that offers a hint of comic relief.

“Sometimes families change…create your own,” Brewer sings coldly on the chorus of Epoch, which opens as a deliciously ominous, Britfolk-tinged number and then bounces toward Balkan musical territory in 5/4 time. Likewise, the album’s most macabre song, Worthless Ode, shifting from a morbid march to a Transylvanian dance: it’s about love during wartime, and it doesn’t end well. Another menacing waltz, Script Language sounds like Vera Beren covering Trans-Siberian Orchestra, with some brooding trumpet from the Ghost Train Orchestra‘s Brian Carpenter.

The banjo-driven Rivolta Silenziosa has a World Inferno-style noir cabaret feel, shifting uneasily between low-key and anguished. The most vivid of the Bush-era parables is the pensive, defeated, Pink Floyd-ish art-rock anthem When in Rome: “You can’t see the dead as they’re arriving – many more in the back are under flags and hiding,” Brewer intones. The album ends with a radio transmission from Vinland, the hardy few remaining trying to enjoy themselves with “an apocalyptic night on the town,” or what remains of it, Brewer taking it up and out with an operatic intensity.

The ep also includes Our Devolution Is Televised, whose recurrent mantra is “Can’t you feel the lockdown?”, and the raging, surreal Death Wish for the Impostor. These are great albums, and they’re important ones. The whole point of this music is that in times like these, you become either a hero or a zero: it falls to ordinary people like us to do heroic things. And history is on our side: there’s plenty of precedent. The Nazis weren’t defeated by a race of giants. It was people just like you and everybody else who risked their lives – and lost them, sometimes – to put an end to that particular strain of fascism. We really don’t have any other choice. Imagine what the guards at Auschwitz would have done with GPS technology.

HUMANWINE are playing the album release show for these two on June 10 at the Lizard Lounge, 1667 Mass Ave. in Cambridge, Massachusetts with their acoustic side project the Folks Below opening.

Abby Travis’ Fourth Album Is a Lush Powerpop Classic

Imagine ELO with a better singer – this is the great album that Jeff Lynne should have made after Out of the Blue but didn’t. Abby Travis is one of this era’s great rock bassists, highly sought after by international touring acts since her teens. Yet the sound here is driven not by her bass – which is so deeply in the pocket it’s almost invisible unless you’re listening closely – but her layers and layers of lush, intricately orchestrated piano, string synthesizer and what seems like a million other richly sustained keyboard textures. Travis also happens to be one of this era’s great purist pop stylists, an eclectic songwriter whose signature sound has been a lush, angst-driven grandeur that often takes on a creepy goth tinge. She’s at Rock Shop on April 7 at 9 on a great doublebill with another brilliant purist tunesmith, Ward White, and then at the Mercury on April 8.

Her new album is simply titled IV, which could be read as “four” or “intravenous” – it’s a typical Travis touch. This is her Beatlesque record, a characteristically diverse homage to early 70s glam and art-rock. Vocally, she trades the pillowy angst that’s been her trademark for a seemingly effortless but powerfully soaring approach, reaching Kate Bush or Bjork-like highs in places. As she does with the keyboards, she builds layers and layers of gorgeous, Beatlesque harmonies to match the heft of the arrangements. Fans of this era’s artsy songwriting pantheon – the aforementioned Mr.White, Serena Jost, Patti Rothberg, and the Universal Thump – will love this stuff.

Pulsing Strawberry Fields atmospherics give way to crunchy guitars on the ornate, Beatlesque opening track, Lulu, a triumphant anthem for somebody who’s “everybody’s go-and-get-em gal.” “Now it all becomes so clear, the writing on the wall has disappeared,” Travis beams – and then a cheery ba-ba-ba choir kicks in. The second track, Rosetta has a similarly upbeat, ELO powerpop feel, Chris Bruce’s glammy twin guitars (a tongue-in-cheek trope that appears frequently here) set against the grandeur of the keyboard arrangement. The sarcastic Mr. Here Right Now, who “cannot be counted on at all,” is the most overtly McCartneyesque song here, followed by the nebulously sultry 6/8 soul ballad Don’t Walk Away, its waves of tinkling, swooshing and rushing orchestral textures and Rachelle Garniez-esque vocals.

With its second-generation Mick Ronson guitars, One Hit Wonder wouldn’t be out of place on a recent Patti Rothberg record. I Don’t Know What It’s Like turns the Bee Gees’ hit upside down, reaching toward Vera Beren-style grand guignol but with just a little less punk rock assaultiveness – although the creepy, screaming chromatic guitars that take the chorus out are the single most intense moment here. Like a ballsier Blondie, Pretender is a deliciously brisk, roaring new wave song: “There’s no time left to cry, there’s no time left to cry, you gotta get away,” Travis insists.

With its crushingly depressed, defeated imagery, the most plaintive song here is Heads, They Turn, a strikingly restrained 6/8 piano ballad. There’s also Lightning Squared, a Farfisa-driven Phil Spector-style girl-group soul tune, and the closing track, Last Hurrah, with its torchy piano melody and theatrical torrents of lyrics. This isn’t trendy music by a long shot: the stylistic references here end at about 1981. But for the Romantics among us, anyone who revels in rich, resounding melodies and unselfconscious angst, it’s a rare treat. Best of all, it’s also available as a limited-edition vinyl picture disc!

Happy Halloween!

Here’s the incomparable, charismatic Vera Beren and her Gothic Chamber Blues Ensemble singing The Devil, which poses the question, what if god and the devil were lovers? Talk about the breakup from hell! You can grab a free download here.

Here’s the considerably different but equally incomparable Melissa Fogarty singing the 1911 underground hit Die Fire Korbunes backed by Isle of Klezbos – the song appears about halfway through the program here, a Triangle Shirtwaist Fire centenary special which aired on WBAI’s Beyond the Pale last spring.

Ljova’s upcoming album Lost in Kino collects the brilliant and deviously eclectic viola virtuoso/composer’s film music from recent years. Here’s a Halloweeny clip from Charles Ludlam’s The Coup; here’s a snowy Russian Winterland with footage from a 1909 film by Joseph-Luis Wundmiller.

And finally, for all you stoners, here’s Bongfire by the Fuzzy Cloaks, bassist Scott Yoder’s psychedelic Beatlesque powerpop project.

Bebe Buell – Better Than Ever At the Hiro Ballroom

At this point Bebe Buell can rest on her laurels if she wants to. The legendary rock scenestress has written the well-received memoir Rebel Heart; raised a popular daughter (Liv Tyler); and in the 80s and early 90s, she led a couple of first-class bands who were sort of thinking person’s alternatives to Blondie. So it was something of a surprise, and a heartwarming one, to see Buell pack the Hiro Ballroom last night, fronting a tight new group and airing out a bunch of first-rate powerpop songs from her new album Hard Love. Some of those tunes evoked 80s new wave/popsters the Motels – especially since Buell is working her lower register with more authority than she used to – and some of them leaned back toward glamrock. But the best ones – in fact, almost everything she played – had a distinctly defiant, oldschool New York edge.

If you look at the video from thirty years ago, it’s obvious that Buell wasn’t out of her element with the guys she palled around with (Elvis Costello and the Psychedelic Furs’ Richard Butler, to name a couple). She really knew what she was doing in front of the mic, and she still does – this could be her finest hour. Backed by two guitars, inobtrusive synthesizer, drums and Joan Jett’s former bassist, Buell didn’t have anything on a laptop and she didn’t rely on her excellent backup singer to carry the tunes – although she did appreciate the harmonies. “She’s got my back,” Buell explained with an appreciative wink. The show kicked off on an impressively ominous note with the crunchy powerpop Sugar Sugar (no relation to the 60s pop ditty), with a gypsy punk edge that sounded like Vera Beren in a slightly less menacing mood. They got even crunchier after that with a glam/80s tune possibly titled Stop Look Listen. Several of the songs revisited a dark new wave vibe that evoked DollHouse, another New York band who should be better remembered than they are. “Turn out all the lights, she said,” Buell intoned on a particularly ominous, seductive one of those songs a little later in the set.

Normal Girl sounded like the Ramones doing the Runaways, toying with gender roles – Buell’s normal girls raise hell, mess with guys and don’t kiss ass. The Joey Ramone requiem Fly Black Angel got an epic glam-noir treatment, with a long, surprisingly ethereal outro: “Across this city headlights shine for you,” Buell sang over the brooding, watery swoosh and clang. You Got It All Wrong swung with a raging Dead Boys midtempo stomp welded to creepy, swooping upper-register synth; her cover of the Gang of Four’s I Love a Man in a Uniform ripped the sarcasm of the lyric from the margins and stuck it on the front page. The closing track on the new album, a big, crashing anthem called I Will Wait had a chilly unease that they sent flying with a cover of her old boyfriend Mick Jagger’s God Gave Me Everything. Throughout the show, Buell enticed the surprisingly young crowd to come toward the stage: “I want you to be close to me,” she assured them. And she made good on that promise. After the set was over, she went straight to the merch table to hang out with everyone, exactly what you’d want from someone who’d just done a song called the Mother of Rock n Roll.

Small Beast on Life Support: One of the Year’s Best Rock Shows

If you’re starting a brand-new music blog, how do you choose the first concert to cover? You don’t mess around. You go for the creme de la creme: one of the best triplebills of 2011, Monday night at Small Beast at the Delancey.

As recently as last year, Small Beast was THE place to be for dark, intelligent rock in New York. But then impresario and Botanica bandleader Paul Wallfisch absconded to Germany – which is probably just as well, because as he said at the time, he was being devoured by his own Beast. With a few exceptions – when Carol Lipnik or Vera Beren book the bands – the weekly concert series upstairs at the Delancey hasn’t been the same since. But Monday night was a return to the glory days. The assaultively noir Dead Sextons had originally been scheduled, but had to cancel. Due to a fortuitous encounter at one of the city’s elite studios (Beren is also an engineer of note), Rachelle Garniez stepped in and delivered mightily.

Beginning on accordion and moving to piano a bit later on and backed only by the Microscopic Septet’s Dave Hostra’s tersely nimble upright bass, she opened with a signature song of sorts, Quality Star. The version on her Luckyday album is lushly psychedelic, and so was this one, awash in brooding, sustained chords, Garniez taking her time with a few tellingly allusive scenes from a marriage gone horribly wrong. When she got to the outro, she didn’t cut loose – she just let the lyrics fuel the payoff, “You couldn’t pay me to go back there again.”

The rest of the show was a lot more upbeat, but no less intense. Garniez draws you in with her sense of humor and then lets her quiet but sabretoothed charisma do the rest. Once she’d gotten her stream of consciousness up and running, the wry, deadpan observations wouldn’t stop. One of the stage monitors was crackling: she insisted that Pop Rocks were coming out of it. A bit later, she launched into a long intro to one of the piano songs, a bitingly dismissive account of someone from a long-forgotten past trying to reconnect with her on Facebook. No matter how alone you may feel, she explained, there’s always someone online who wants to be your friend when you least want it.

She also romped through the subtle, offhand, ragtime-fueled menace of Kid in the Candy Store, a surprisingly klezmer-inflected minor-key number possibly titled Just Because You Should Doesn’t Mean You Can, and a hilariously deadpan waltz dedicated to Jean-Claude Van Damme (who, if the song is to be believed, is hawking antidepressants now). At the end, Garniez went way, way up the scale to aria heights – part of it was a just plain breathtaking display of vocal chops, but it was also irresistibly funny. One of the cognoscenti in the crowd remarked how touring as Karen Elson’s keyboardist has gotten Garniez to take her stage presence up a notch, but the truth is that she’s always had that game down cold, since her residency at Terra Blues about ten years ago, maybe since her days as a teenager fronting one of the first worldbeat bands, one that came thisclose to being famous – or at least signed to a big corporate label.

Vera Beren has the same kind of charisma, but unlike Garniez, she hits you head-on. With her gale-force contralto, she’s impossible to turn away from. Between songs, when Beren chatted nonchalantly with the audience, the contrast was striking: it was hard to imagine that such a dramatic, powerful voice could come out of someone so down-to-earth. Like Garniez, Beren draws on a fearless, irreverent punk rock wit. “What if god and, what’s his buddy’s name, Lucifer, were lovers?” she asked luridly. She offered a few answers, some anguished, others droll, with her opening number, The Devil, backed by a four-piece edition of her aptly titled Gothic Chamber Blues Ensemble. It set the stage for the rest of the show, a crescendoing anthem with roots in the High Romantic and swirling, funereal organ, Jon Diaz’ thick, sustained guitar lines shadowing it and occasionally moving in for the kill.

Blood of the Sun, a twisted waltz, gave Beren a launching pad for some effortless, double-octave vocal leaps. Baby shifted from an ominously atmospheric bass-driven intro to a methodically menacing Patti Smith-style spoken-word interlude, collapsing at the end into a volcanic metal mess. As usual, The Nod was a big hit with the crowd, with its slinky gypsy-punk groove, turn-on-a-ruble time changes and rumbling/searing twin guitar attack from Diaz and Mark Birkey, who throughout the show switched from piano, to trombone, to guitar and then back again.

With its foghorn trombone, Jay Cavanaugh’s booming bass chords and off-the-hinges guitar leads from Diaz, Priest Blues was like Blue Oyster Cult gone no wave up to a brief off-kilter punk-jazz interlude and then back again. The bitter, alienated Delirium, true to its title, changed tempos and meters endlessly – it was impossible for anyone but the band to keep up with it. Beren – who’d been busy pelting the audience with appeared to be a bottomless bagful of roses – finally went behind the keyboard and played organ on this one. Unlike a lot of musicians, she always sings best when she’s also playing. They closed with the fiery, ornate lament Is It Me, Diaz’ swoops and dives contrasting with the piano’s elegant astringencies.

The fun didn’t end there. Headliner Thomas Simon gets a lot of film work, so it’s no surprise that his shows have an enveloping, cinematic quality. This time he didn’t have electric djembe genius Alex Alexander to back him up, which meant that he had to spin with split-second precision through a small army of loops and effects (and a new set of Moog pedals that the musicians in the crowd were drooling over). Garniez pulls you in with her wit and charm, Beren with her powerful pipes; Simon does it with a swirling vortex of a million guitar, keyboard and percussion textures. More than just a one-man band, he was a one-man orchestra, shifting from slowly swaying, blacklit soundscapes aloft on endlessly oscillating sonic ebbtides, to several vocal tunes. One stomped along on a memorably savage series of distorted chords straight out of the Dead Boys or Sham 69 catalog. Other times, he’d introduce a hypnotic beat and then build it methodically, with layers of guitar that roared, clanged, howled and blended into each other, sometimes gracefully winding down to where the whole thing started. If there’s ever another Alien movie, this is the guy who should get to do the score.