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The Best, Most Darkly Cinematic New York Show of 2016: Mamie Minch and Steve Ulrich at Barbes

The best show of 2016 in New York – at least the best one where this blog was in the house – was in mid-October at Barbes, where guitarists Mamie Minch and Steve Ulrich played a live score to silent films supplied by filmmaker Russell Scholl. And it was unquestionably the the year’s most cinematic, which makes sense considering both the context and the artists involved. Ulrich gets lots of work for film and for PBS, when he’s not fronting his slinky, Lynchian reverb guitar band, Big Lazy. Minch plays her own darkly individualistic, wit-infused take on classic country blues and Americana when she’s not running New York’s only woman-owned instrument repair store, Brooklyn Lutherie,. Both players have shows coming up. On Dec 6 at 6:30 PM, Minch is part of an excellent triplebill with fellow oldtime country blues purveyor Eli Smith and rustic 19th century style string band the Four O’Clock Flowers at the American Folk Art Museum, playing songs on the time-honored theme of death and mourning to coincide with the museum’s latest, wonderfully creeyp exhibition. Then she’s at Barbes at 8 on Dec 16. Ulrich is at Spectrum on Dec 10 at 7:30 PM with his Big Lazy bandmate, drummer Yuval Lion, where they’ll join Bob Dylan keyboardist Mick Rossi, Barbez‘s Peter Hess and Zion80‘s Jon Madof for a night of similarly creepy improvisation; cover is $15.

The night’s first movie at Barbes was a surrealistically nostalgic Coney Island tableau by Scholl, Minch singing a sad waltz that she’d originally written as a member of the badly missed oldtime harmony quartet the Roulette Sisters. Low and somber, she built a similarly moody Brooklyn oceanside scenario, the amusement park as a metaphor for passion that could go drastically wrong. It’s her Wall of Death.

Then Ulrich joined her for a brief set of his own shadowy film noir compositions while another Scholl pastiche – a defiantly individualistic, snidely anti-authoritarian work, like a Donald O’Finn mashup without the endless parodies of oversexed tv – flickered on the screen behind them. The two musicians have collaborated a lot over the past couple of years. Hearing Minch play Ulrich’s signature, menacing chromatics on her resonator guitar was a real treat, Ulrich supplying his usual macabre, resonant twang through a skeletally dancing number with hints of Romany jazz, then a morose graveyard stroll, Ulrich’s angst-fueled insistence against Minch’s steady, mournful chords. They wound it up with tricky syncopation and more rain-drenched chromatics that gave way to reflecting-pool psychedelia as the film hit a comedic coda.

Minch scored the night’s final film, Windsor McCay’s pioneering 1921 early animation flick The Flying House, chronicling the adventures of a man who motorizes his home and then takes it up into the clouds in order to escape the evil bankster who wants to foreclose on it. You want relevance? Minch switched slowly and masterfully from one oldtime blues tuning to another. interpolating those graceful blue notes into the score as she retuned, moving seamlessly through gemtly waltzing, pastoral passages, bouncily romping interludes, elements of psychedelic folk and 70s British art-rock, hardly styles that you would associate with someone regarded as one of this era’s great blueswomen. After the movie. the two treated the crowd to a cover of Johnny Cash’s Committed to Parkview – a Hollywood nuthouse if there ever was one – as well as a take of the Beatles hit Girl that really brought out all the menace in a femme fatale. They closed out the night with a solo Ulrich jazz tune and then Minch’s funereal rendition of the Bessie Smith murder ballad Sing Sing Blues. Only in New York, folks.

Big Lazy: 2016’s Ultimate Halloween Band

What better way to kick off Halloween month, 2016 than with the world’s slinkiest, most shadowy instrumental trio, Big Lazy? They play both kinds of Halloween music, the trick-or-treat stuff as well as the sinister. In all seriousness, they’re a lot closer to the latter than the former. Guitarist/founder Steve Ulrich, bassist Andrew Hall and drummer Yuval Lion return to their monthly first-Friday-of-the-month, 10 PM residency this coming Friday, Oct 7 at Barbes.

It’s a fair guess that the people who were running Punk Magazine back in 1976 caught the Ramones at CB’s more than a few times that summer. And at least some of the hippies at the Village Voice back in the 60s might well have seen Phil Ochs at Folk City more than once. If you buy the premise that this blog is to New York what, say, Punk Magazine was to this city forty years ago – or what the Voice was a decade before then – it makes sense that New York Music Daily would be in the house for several Big Lazy Barbes shows in 2016. The funnest one might have been the most recent and cleverly improvisational, where Lion was just plain having a ball with all sorts of counterintuitive rhythms and syncopation, and Michael Bates – who shares a jazz pedigree with Hall – took over on the four-string. Another fun set was a couple of months back when Kill Henry Sugar‘s Dean Sharenow, a frequent Ulrich film score collaborator, sat in on drums, bringing his signature snare sound along with a dry wit to match the bandleader’s unparalleled, bleak sense of humor.

But the year’s best Big Lazy show – this blog has caught pretty much all of them – wasn’t at Barbes. It was at the Lively, a refreshingly laid-back basement bar located in the Meatpacking District, of all places. That joint had nice people working there, cheap drinks (at least by the standards of that neighborhood), a real stage in the back and a fantastic PA system. Sadly, this year’s strongest contender for “best Manhattan venue” barely lasted a couple of months.

But what a show Big Lazy played there. They ripped through Princess Nicotine, a machinegunning, barely three-minute minor-key ghoulabilly sprint that Ulrich wrote as a soundtrack piece to an obscure early 20s short film of the same name. The creepiest number of the night was Skinless Boneless, a slowly swaying, macabre tableau adrift in oceans of guitar reverb and tremoloing tritones. They didn’t do their serial killer strut version of Piazzolla’s Pulsacion No. 5, or their uber-noir cover of Thelonious Monk’s Epistrophy, both of which they aired out at Barbes this past summer, but they did do the early Beatles hit Girl, reinventing it as a dirge in the same vein as their deadpan take of Lesley Gore’s You Don’t Own Me. And they did some new stuff, including one serpentine mini-epic that swung from neo-Nino Rota Fellini score, to more rocking and psychedelic, to sheer terror in places. As at Barbes, there were couples up front, dancing. Which is what noir is all about, anyway: grabbing what you can while the shadows close in.

Beninghove’s Hangmen and Big Lazy in Brooklyn: Noir Music Heaven

Considering that we’re only in March, it’s hardly safe to say that the twinbill coming up this Monday the 14th at around 9 at Manhattan Inn, with Beninghove’s Hangmen and Big Lazy, is the best one of the year. The April 15, 10 PM doublebill of Desert Flower and Lorraine Leckie & Her Demons, at Sidewalk, of all places, looks awfully good. And there will be others. But as far as dark and blackly amusing sounds are concerned, it doesn’t get any better than Monday’s lineup in Greenpoint.

Big Lazy’s set last Friday night at Barbes was surprisingly quirky. Gallows humor, and funny quotes from other songs are familiar tropes for the noir cinematic trio, but frontman/guitarist Steve Ulrich was having an especially good time with them: Mission Impossible, My Funny Valentine, Caravan – which Ulrich has covered murderously well in the past – and a whole bunch of others. And a trio of creepy cover tunes: Girl, by the Beatles, a stabbing version of an Astor Piazzolla tango and an absolutely lurid take of John Barry’s You Only Live Twice, with a savagely tremolo-picked solo midway through.

It was kind of a weird night, if a good one. The crowd wasn’t the usual mobscene that this band draws. Out front at the bar, it looked like the prom bus from Jersey or somewhere in Alabama had just disembarked. Scarier than Big Lazy’s originals – even Park Slope isn’t safe from yuppie puppy zombie apocalypse anymore. But in back, people were dancing in an oasis of reverb guitar and pitchblende basslines.

This Monday’s opening act, Beninghove’s Hangmen work the same turf: raindrenched wee hours crime jazz tableaux and more overtly humorous interludes. Like Ulrich, frontman/multi-saxophonist Bryan Beninghove gets a lot of film work, so his instrumentals can shift shape from, say, blithe to brutal in a split second and the segue doesn’t seem the least bit jarring. Case in point: the title track to their deliciously creepy upcoming album, Pineapples & Ashtrays.

And they’re more of a jamband than Big Lazy. While a lot of their material can be grim, and ghoulish, and sometimes downright morose, they can also be hilarious. The best example is Zohove, their instrumental album of Led Zep covers, streaming at Spotify.. Zep’s music can be awfully funny by itself, and Beninghove’s reimaginings are even funnier.

On the opening track, Kashmir, Rick Parker’s elephantine trombone snorts and Beninghove’s spectacularly swirling soprano sax lines over the stomp behind it elevate it to Vesuvius heights. Heavy new wave rhythm from drummer Kevin Shea (of another even funnier band, Mostly Other People Do the Killing) and bassist Ezra Gale (of dub reggae crew Super Hi-Fi, who are also hardly strangers to funny songs) might be the last thing you might expect to work in a cover of Misty Mountain Hop, but it does. And the guitar is trippy behond belief: Eyal Maoz’s droll Spinal Tap bends over Dane Johnson’s Jabba the Hut Space Lounge electro-breakdown.

What Is and What Never Should Be is a droll mashup of quotes:You Can’t Just Get What You Want, ad infinitum. Likewise, the album’s title track, a sort of a greatest-riffs collection, cleverly disassembled in the same vein as what you find in how-to books like “Play Guitar in the Style of Tony Iommi.”

The group’s version of Immigrant Song substitutes Bennghove’s sax and Parker’s trombone for Robert Plant’s bleat – and it’s priceless. A shivery twin guitar solo decays toward the noir the band’s known for, over dancing bass to match Beninghove’s bluesy tenor spirals

It’s amazing how they reinvent D’yer Maker as uneasy, metrically tricky noir ska, and then an Afrobeat epic, And the Specials quote at the end is LMFAO too. The album ends with a slinking, incendiary take of When the Levee Breaks fueled by blue-flame slide guitar worthy of Jimmy Page himself. It’s the one place on the album where the band actually seems to take the material seriously, and it might be the best track of all. Get this and get a roomful of Zep fans laughing their collective asses off. Beninghove’s Hangmen usually play at least one Zep cover at most of their shows, so we’re likely to get some of this buffoonery Monday night in Brooklyn.

Film Noir Instrumentalists Big Lazy and Italian Singer Julia Patinella Haunt the Crowd at Barbes

As the story goes, Julia Patinella‘s first live appearance at Barbes lasted for about two bars.worth of music “But what two bars!” said Big Lazy frontman/guitarist Steve Ulrich, as he introduced the singer early in the band’s set there last month. The two first met in the wee hours there. She’d done what a lot of musicians do when it’s past midnight and the bands are finished: she broke out her guitar and took a stab at entertaining her friends with a couple of Italian folk songs, completely unplugged.

Uh uh. Like a lot of venues, Barbes has a strict curfew on music, and they enforce it. But unlike the bartender who did the enforcing, Ulrich was entranced. Being a devotee of Italian music and heavily influenced by both Nino Rota and Ennio Morricone, Ulrich asked Patinella if she’d sing with the band. The result turned out to be a couple of hauntingly affecting, nocturnally lilting numbers, the first with Romany tinges, the second a playful commentary on how women deserve just as much fun in the sack as guys do, complete with sardonically low-key orgasmic vocalese. And as comfortable as she was with this material, maybe considering her Sicilian heritage, this was something of a departure for her since she’s focused mostly on flamenco lately. Years from now, when Patinella is playing big stages around the globe, she can tell the world that she was discovered by Big Lazy.

For their part, the iconic noir instrumental trio hung back with a moody jangle to match Patinella’s nuance. Their own material was just as dynamic, and considerably darker, as you would expect from this creepy crew. Their show on New Year’s Day here featured a lot of highway themes and big-sky ambience: this set was a particularly murderous one. Bassist Andrew Hall used his bow more than usual, painting pitchblend swaths underneath Ulrich’s lurid chromatics, lingering blues phrases drenched in reverb, and the occasional savage flurry of tremolo-picking. It’s a mystery how this guy manages not to break strings.

Mystery was the theme for the rest of the show, part horror surf, part crime jazz, part shapeshifting cinematic sweep. Drummer Yuval Lion seemed more amped than usual as the band stabbed and pulsed through a cover of Piazzolla’s Pulsacion #5, then later the surrealistic sprint Princess Nicotine – a new theme for an old silent short from the 20s. Otherwise, the menace was relentless, through the slinky shadows of Don’t Cross Myrtle, Swampesque and one of the creepiest songs of the night, Influenza, which Ulrich wryly pondered about renaming. If dark sounds are your thing, Big Lazy are your band. Their monthly Friday night Barbes residency continues this Friday, March 4 at 10. T’hey’re also at Manhattan Inn in Greenpoint on March 14 at around 9 on what might be the years’s best twinbill, with similarly macabre, surfy, shapeshifting soundtrack instrumentalists Beninghove’s Hangmen.

Tim Kuhl’s St. Helena Build a Sound to Get Lost In at the Ace Hotel

Drummer Tim Kuhl‘s group St. Helena play some of the trippiest, most cinematic music of any band in New York. Current-day film composers from Angelo Badalamenti to Johann Johannsson seem to be an influence, as are minimalism, indie classical and jazz. The band are wrapping up their weekly February residency with a show at around 10 PM on February 28 in the comfortably spacious, lowlit lobby at the Ace Hotel (the old Breslin apartments building) at 20 W 29th St. just east of Broadway. There’s no cover, and there’s a laid-back bar just to the right of the elevators if you’d like a drink.

Their show this past Sunday was hypnotic, and enveloping, and absolutely entrancing in places. Kuhl is your typical elite drummer, with his fingers in a million pies – he’s also a jazz bandleader, when he’s not on tour with any number of rock bands, or playing a Manhattan residency as a member of folk noir crew Lorraine Leckie & Her Demons. This time out, Kuhl led the band from behind the kit, bolstered by Big Lazy’s Yuval Lion on syndrums, Jesske Hume on bass, Ryan Mackstaller on guitar and keys and Rick Parker on trombone, keys and mixer. There were also a couple of guest vocalists, one who did a surreallistically insistent spoken word cameo, working in tandem with the band to create a Lynchian newschool beat-jazz atmosphere.

What this band does live is what most other atmospheric acts would use electronics for – which is a big reason why they’re so interesting to watch. Midway through the set, Kuhl matched precision with raw power as he built a polar vortex of white noise with his cymbals, later employing a scrap heap worth of iron shakers for a creepy, ghostly effect. Rather than using a loop pedal, Hume took a tricky repetitive riff in 5/4 and played it slowly, over and over, with a precision to match the drums: no easy task.

The show followed a dynamic arc, slowly rising and then descending. Mackstaller built toward a twinkling fanfare with his echoey, minimalist lines as Kuhl slowly rolled out of a quasi-trip-hop groove toward a shuffling march beat. From there they worked a steady, slowly strolling 10/4 rhythm colored with warmly resonant, pastoral washes from Mackstaller’s guitar and looming, distantly ominous foghorn phrases from Parker’s trombone. Once again, Kuhl shifted meters so subtly that it wasn’t noticeable til it actually happened.

They picked things up with a dreampop-tinged postrock mood piece, again alluding to trip-hop but not quite going there. Then they brought things down with a surrealistically tremoloing sci-fi waltz of sorts before picking up the pace with what seemed to be a tongue-in-cheek, rhythmically shifting take on a New Orleans second-line bounce. Clanking prison-cell sonics contrasted with ghostly stairstepping bass amid the swirl as the show went on. They closed with a broodingly wistful, Lynchian theme and then a nebulously crescendoing motorik groove. No doubt there will be just as many trance-inducing flavors flickering in the shadows here this coming weekend.

Visions of a Deadly, Rainy Friday Night This December, In and Out of Focus

This is not a dream.

The gleep struts and waltzes in from the shadows, licking his lips. Is that blood? Maybe. Whatever it is, there’s a lot of it, and it’s energized him. He makes a mad dash at your face, only to swerve away at the last second as his foot catches something on the rain-slicked cobblestones  – no pavement down here in what’s left of the old city. Better leave him in his rubber raincoat to slink away now that he’s made an impression. Damn, it’s cold out here, and it’s wet. Global warming be damned. Where is that umbrella?

The funeral procession wears sombreros. Black ones to match their vests and bolo ties, which are only visible in a trick of the light from the lamppost, at the top of its arc as the flickers oscilllate downward to blackness. Suddenly the parade scampers off and in a second it’s clear why, as an ancient if immaculately preserved, jet-black 1956 Nash Ambassador police cruiser enters the picture in a rush of oxygen and exhaust and then is gone in a split second. Where did that come from, and was there any police department anywhere in the union that actually used that make and model in 1956?

This isn’t a dream.

Pan in on that warehouse a block away. Who’s that going up the fire escape, how did he get there and why is it taking him so long? Suddenly he sprints up the wrought iron and vanishes. Is it the gleep from the first few frames? Probably not, considering how fast he moved. Everything is moving too fast now to focus for very long anyway, even if everything is also simultaneously moving very slowly. Will daylight ever come? At this point, that’s doubtful.

[What if Nino Rota had a secret life beyond the erudite, irrepressibly witty Italian intelllectual cinemaphile composer that everyone took him for? What if he was a serial killer? Just asking.]

Timothy MacVeigh and Suspect #2 (remember him?) are cruising cross-country in their loaded rental van, headed blithely for Junction City, Kansas. It’s a comfortable, big-sky afternoon, but one that feels inevitable, heavy despite the wide-open expanse above them. Remember, this is not a dream. MacVeigh floors the loaded-down vehicle to get past an eighteen-wheeler and the big V8 delivers an unexpected roar to get the job done.

These are just a few of the kind of images that might come to mind at a Big Lazy concert. New York’s creepiest, most cinematic noir soundtrack instrumental band has a monthly Friday night residency at Barbes. Their next gig is at 10 PM on December 4 – and if you’re coming, get there on time because the last time they played here, they gave away their second set to another band (the awesome Mercury Radio Theater – more on them here a little later).

Bassist Andrew Hall slinks and bows his lines, drawing on a tarpit of lethal low-register sonics. Guitarist Steve Ulrich is a surgeon, or a coroner, awash in reverb, armed with a sharp scalpel.

Drummer Yuval Lion rides the traps, very subtly. For the record, it’s hard to remember anyone playing the rims with as much nuance as he did at this particular show, whenever it was – October’s, most likely (the cassette isn’t labeled for reasons that will soon be obvious).

Listening back to the room mix, it swirls, as if through a flange. One second the sound’s distinct, front and center in the frame, the next it pans left and then makes its way to the middle again. Maybe because the recorder’s owner might have been swaying in front of it, obscuring the sonic picture, adrift in a haze of whiskey and PBR? That’s a possibility. Barbes is a place to drink. They take good care of you there. It’s up to you to take care after you head uphill through the shadows to the F train, or to the Donut Diner on 7th Ave. if you don’t have to rush home to file your story.

Two Sides of Iconic Trumpeter Frank London, Live and on Record

It makes sense that Frank London’s Klezmer Brass All-Stars would headline the finale of this year’s NY Gypsy Festival, starting at 7:30 PM on October 4 at the Schimmel Center at Pace University on Spruce St. in the financial district. The iconic trumpeter had already established himself in Balkan music before co-founding the original New York klezmer punk band, the Klezmatics. Since then, London has lent his firepower, wit and erudition to innumerable projects. One of the most quietly impactful and historically rich ones is Italian-born singer Shulamit’s album For You the Sun Will Shine: Songs of Women in the Shoah, which came out late last year. It marks the first release of the work of four women songwriters who chronicled their harrowing experiences, imprisoned during the Holocaust. One survived, two others were murdered, and the fourth is assumed to have perished as well. As you would expect, this is one of the most surreal and chilling albums ever made.

London and pianist Shai Bachar co-produced the album – four of whose tracks are streaming at Shulamit’s music page – recasting these pieces as art-songs. Bachar brings both a neoromantic plaintiveness and also a sense of the macabre that he uses delicately to raise the surrealistic factor. Big Lazy’s Yuval Lion supplies spare, purposeful percussion on a handful of tracks. Shulamit sings in German and Czech with equal amounts expressivneess and restraint: the common link among these songs is a crushing hope against hope.

The songwriter whose work is featured most prominently here is Ilse Weber, a popular Czech broadcaster and children’s author murdered alongside one of her sons in the gas chamber at Auschwitz in 1944..What’s most striking, aside from the heartwrenching, plainspoken lyrical content, is how diverse her songwriting is. London’s bright, blue-sky lines and Bachar’s stately piano channel a distant parlor-pop charm that makes a crushing contrast with the songs’ theme; at times, the band will mirror the crushing sarcasm of her lyrics with a faux-celebratory, martial Teutonic beat. But the forced-march courage quickly gives way to a muted horror, through the twisted I Wander Through Thersienstadt, the Satie-esque lament And the Rain Keeps Falling and a couple of lullabies, one of them an attempt to marshal some calm amidst the horror, and one that doesn’t try to mute the reality of the circumstances under which it was written.

The Czech-born Ludmila Peskarova, who survived and lived to 97, is represented by two tracks. There’s a sad Christmas-day tableau from the Ravensbruck camp, and Moravia, Moravia, the most ghostly and otherworldly song here, evoking an ancient cantorial ambience.

The most savagely sarcastic, despairing number is The Auschwitz Song, attributed to one Camilla Mohaupt, whose fate is unclear. It’s a cover of a 1920 Dutch pop hit with new lyrics reflecting hopelessness and sheer horror amid the squalor. There’s also an ornately classically-tinged miniature with music by Polish composer Carlo Taube and lyrics by his wife Erika: “As long as you aren’t bound by the word ‘home,’ your heart will be free,” a mother explains to her child. These days, one can only wonder how many of the Syrian war refugees feel the same way.

London’s show on Sunday with his band and singer Eleanor Reissa wraps up a tremendous night of music that starts at 7:30 with the Underground Horns, who veer from the Balkans to the Mediterranean to New Orleans, then the similarly eclectic, Ellington and hip-hop-influenced Slavic Soul Party, then the punk-inspired Hungry March Band, the only group on this bill so far to play Madison Square Garden. Considering what you get, cover is a reasonable $20.

Big Lazy Bring Their Lurid, Creepy, State-of-the-Art Noir Back to Barbes

How many bands have there ever been who were at their peak twenty years after they started? On one hand, just getting to the twenty-year mark as a band is quite the achievement. But composer/guitarist Stephen Ulrich just keeps getting creepier and more eclectic. And it’s safe to say that this edition of Big Lazy, the world’s most consistently haunting, reverb guitar-fueled instrumental band is the best ever. Which is not to be dismissive of original drummer Willie Martinez, who only left the group due to the demands on his schedule as a star of latin jazz and salsa. Nor is this a dis at original bassist Paul Dugan, whose darkly frenetic pulse was such an important part of the band’s first incarnation from about 1996 through 2007.

But the new rhythm section of Andrew Hall and Yuval Lion is the best ever, and the most consistent with Ulrich’s bleak, rain-drenched vision. Back in the day, the band made their home at Tonic, the late, lamented Norfolk Street hotspot for adventurous, jazz-influenced music. Since last year, maybe predictably, the band has made Barbes their home base. They’re playing there again on August 7 at 10 PM.

Between them, Hall and Lion give Ulrich a more minimalist groove than this band has ever had. And yet, they also get featured more prominently on solos, Hall using his bow for extra stygian resonance, Lion rattling the traps like a poltergeist left over from when Manhattan’s Record District (where you bought turntables and vinyl) was bulldozed to make way for the World Trade Center. It may not be safe to say that any one band in town is the very best, but it is safe to say that Big Lazy never play anything remotely the same way twice.

Ulrich saves his bloodthirsty volleys of tremolo-picking and savage chord-chopping when he really needs to take the energy to redline or bring a sonic narrative to a murderous peak (film soundtracks are his regular gig – Big Lazy is his fun project). He’ll often intersperse a loping highway theme or great plains noir atmospherics amidst all the crime-jazz chromatics and wall-bending noir surf riffs. Although on record, menace is the band’s stock in trade, onstage Ulrich can be very funny, quoting from all sorts of jazz songs and movie themes. Once or twice a set, he’ll put down the guitar and break out his lapsteel for high lonesome wails or lingering, floating body-in-the-pool sonics. And much as most of the songs are instrumentals, occasionally they’ll have a guest take a turn out front: one of the coolest moments in the trio’s recent shows has been where oldtime music maven Mamie Minch joined them for a nonchalantly Lynchian, plaintive version of Crazy.

When Ulrich regrouped Big Lazy in 2013 after a six-year hiatus, that was big news, and this blog covered them not once but five times that year and in 2014. Which explains why the band has been absent from the front page here since this past January. But this blog hasn’t been absent from Big Lazy’s Barbes shows this year, beginning in January and then in each of the last three months. In case you haven’t already figured it out, one more thing that’s safe to say about this decidedly unsafe band is that they’re worth seeing more than once. At the end of the year, along with the best albums and best songs lists, there’s also a list of the best concerts in New York and at least one of these gigs will be on it – the May show in particular was pretty amazing.

Big Lazy’s Don’t Cross Myrtle – Best Album of 2014

Film composer/guitarist Stephen Ulrich has been on some kind of roll lately. He scored the Academy Award-shortlisted documentary Art and Craft with characteristically vivid noir unease. His one-off album with his cinematic instrumental project Ulrich Ziegler, with ex-Pink Noise guitarist Itamar Ziegler, was rated best album of 2012 here. Most recently, Ulrich has regrouped his legendary noir instrumental trio Big Lazy, who set the bar as far as menacing reverbtone guitar cinematics are concerned. The title of their latest album, Don’t Cross Myrtle – streaming at Spotify – is a creepy deep-Brooklyn reference, and it’s apt. Pound for pound, it’s the best album of 2014.

Some backstory: the group broke up in 2007. Meanwhile, Ulrich continued on with a semi-rotating cast of characters including drummer Yuval Lion, who ended up sticking around for this project along with prominently ubiquitous bassist Andrew Hall, who’s never played with more stygian intensity than he does here. The new album covers all the desolate, shadowy, knifes-edge territory that previous incarnations of the band have evoked since their iconic 1996 debut, Amnesia, released under the name Lazy Boy (the reason for the name change is a sick and hilarious indictment of American corporate fascism). And this unit turns out to be the best version of the band, ever, surpassing even the slinky menace of Ulrich’s original trio with Paul Dugan on bass and Willie Martinez on drums.

The opening track, Minor Problem, is a a twisted tango, Ulrich tracing a sleaze-infested trail with his guitar and then his lapsteel over a misterioso clatter from Lion as Hall holds it all together. The slowly undulating Unswerving blends Charlie Giordano’s accordion into Ulrich’s spaciously eerie chromatics for a tinge of Peter Lorre-era musette. The Low Way opens as a jauntily swinging, Bill Frisell-esque highway theme, but Ulrich wastes no time edging it toward the shadows: it’s sort of the reverse image of Junction City, the one relatively easygoing track on the band’s debut.

Human Sacrifice makes horror surf out of a flamenco theme – with its savage clusters and sudden dips and swells, it’s one of the most suspenseful tracks here, and a real showstopper live. Black Sheep brings back the pastoral flavor with a muted, psychedelic sarcasm – Lion’s snorting barnyard flurries on the drums are irresistibly funny. Avenue X – another Brooklyn reference and a popular title in the horror surf demimonde – revisits the murky, dubby depths that Ulrich explored for awhile about ten years ago, with a snide, faux-blithe trumpet cameo from Sexmob‘s Steven Bernstein.

Night Must Fall motors along on an ominously sketchy ghoulabilly shuffle groove in the same vein as classic late 90s Big Lazy tracks like Princess Nicotine and Just Plain Scared, hitting a similarly explosive, jagged peak. The single best cut here is the funereal waltz Swampesque, Lion and Hall shadowing Ulrich’s alternately lingering and icepicking lines. Bring Me the Head of Lee Marvin pairs crime-scene guitar with guest Peter Hess’s brooding baritone sax over an almost imperceptibly shapeshifting groove.

The album’s title track is also its funniest, a ba-BUMP stripper theme that the band, and Bernstein again, fire poison darts at with considerable relish. Whereabouts takes a balmy jazz ballad deep into Twin Peaks territory; the album winds up with a bonus track, Lunch Lady, a narrative that turns on a dime from bouncy and bluesy to murderous. Throughout the album, Ulrich and the rhythm section pepper the shadowy cinematics with bits of black humor and the occasional devious quote – Hendrix, the Mission Impossible theme and allusions to Nino Rota’s Fellini soundtracks, a well that Ulrich has drawn deeply from over the years. Obviously, picking this album over similarly brilliant if stylistically unrelated releases by Jennifer Niceley, Robin Aigner, Paul Wallfisch’s Ministry of Wolves and Arborea (all of whom you may see on this page in the near future, hint hint) is completely subjective. It’s like choosing Sergeant Pepper over Are You Experienced in 1967, or Public Enemy over Sonic Youth in 1987. If you buy the idea that somebody has to make that call, this album makes it a no-brainer.

Best Halloween Show of 2013: Carol Lipnik, Villa Delirium, Big Lazy and Mamie Minch

Is there a style of music that John Kruth can’t play? On Halloween, he brought his witty, ghoulish circus-rock band Villa Delirium to Barbes on a triplebill that was as darkly entertaining as it promised to be. Vllla Delirium are as eclectic as Kruth’s other project, Tribecastan but more grounded in classic Americana than the Middle Eastern, Romany and Central Asian sounds that kitchen-sink instrumental unit explores. As the band name implies, there’s a gleefully dark humor to most of Villa Delirium’s songs. This time out, Kruth switched between mandolin, acoustic guitar and wood flute, alongside the band’s not-so-secret weapon, Tine Kindermann on vocals and singing saw, plus Kenny Margolis on accordion and multi-keys and Doug Wieselman on bass clarinet and mandolin.

Kruth kicked off the night with one of a handful of canivalesque waltzes, followed by the surreeal La Vie de Madame Tussaud, sung in French by Kindermann, with the first of several shivery, sepulchral saw solos. A little later on, she sang the Doors’ Crystal Ship in German, its creepy Weimar psychedelics enhanced by a minimoog solo where Margolis played through a choir patch, adding an uber-goth edge.

Kruth grinningly delivered a mash note to a flirtatious ghost who was hot in her time over Message to You Rudie riffage, followed by the first of a handful of pretty country waltzes, a klezmer-tinged tune and then Kindermann’s Russian/klezmer spoof Nyet Is All You’ll Ever Get. They went a little further west to the Balkans for a murderous tale about the Countess Bathory, who reputedly bathed in virgins’ blood as a medieval precursor to botox. Then they did their funniest song of the night, a droll waltz sung by Kruth that twisted the story of the pied piper into a cautionary tale about how you should never stiff a musician.

A wistful, Celtic-tinged accordion waltz evoked Rachelle Garniez; a little later, they got the audience singing along on the swinging blues tune Calling the Monster Back Home, then the barrelhouse Jerry Lee-style anthem Turning up the Burners in Satan’s Steakhouse with Margolis rocking the piano keys. They wound up their set with the psych-folk waltz What Is the Moon on Tonight: “What is the moon on, mescaline or blow, and where can I get some, I just wanna know,” Kruth deadpanned. He was so taken by Wieselman’s first spiky, rapidfire mandolin solo that he asked for another one and presumably got what he wanted; the crowd roared for more.

Probably because the music was so good, the amateurs didn’t show up until late in headliners Big Lazy‘s second set, and by then it was past midnight. By then, guitarist Steve Ulrich, Andrew Hall (first chair bassist of the Greenwich Village Orchestra) and drummer Yuval Lion had stalked their way through murderous back-alley crime jazz romps, a couple of western swing-tinged blue-sky themes, slasher skronk and a pitchblende lament or two. The most spine-tingling moment of the night was when Mamie Minch came up to join them for a Lynchian version of Crazy. Most women who cover the song sing it whimsically, or bittersweetly; Minch sang it as if it had happened to her and she was living the cruel aftermath, working her way up to the top of her register and then eventually taking a long slide down into her moody alto, adding the occasional, flickering, bluesy melisma as the band tiptoed through the mist behind her. And Minch’s talents aren’t limited to reinventing the Americana songbook; she’s also adept at repairing guitars. She’s recently hung out her own shingle: if you’ve dropped your vintage Martin on the peg and split it down the back, she knows how to get it back in shape.

And Carol Lipnik and Spookarama, who would have been an equally good choice of headliner, opened the night, the chanteuse wowing the crowd with her four-octave range as she sang with an otherworldly resonance through her trusty echo pedal. Pianist Dred Scott played circus blues, noir jazz and hypnotic, Asian-tinged minimalism over Tim Luntzel’s slinky bass as Lipnik ran through a mix of phantasmagorical favorites and the darkly enigmatic, hypnotic songs she’s recently been adding to her repertoire. Right before her encore, she quoted Rumi, which pretty much spoke for itself: “My shadow is only as beautiful as your candle.”